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Ontek (1989-2001)

While in California in 1989 I was invited to spend time talking to the software designers at Ontek Corporation, Laguna Hills. This turned into a remarkable collaboration. Ontek, founded in 1985 but with roots in software design going back earlier, was a small R&D company working to automate management decision making. Despite its small size (never more than 15 employees) it harboured a savage ambition: to replicate and automate the processes of gathering, deploying and querying information, making and implementing decisions, and acting upon them, that human managers do. The aim was to make management more effective and to save costs in large-scale manufacturing and other industries which cope with masses of data in many forms. The President and chief designer was Chuck Dement (1953-2005), a self-confessed high-school dropout, former jobbing truck-driver, lathe operator and wine connoisseur. Together with a team of highly talented programmers and innovative designers, including Steve De Witt and Tony Sarris, Ontek were trying to create real artificial intelligence. Their principal programme was called PACIS (Platform for the Automated Construction of Intelligent Systems), and their customers included West Coast aerospace manufacturers, and latterly the U.S. Air Force. Chuck had already called on phenomenologist David Woodruff Smith and logician Peter Woodruff to help in the software design, since it turned out to require skills and concepts from the territory of philosophical ontology. I joined as ontologist, initially just as a trial, but from 1989 I returned regularly for periods of between three days and three weeks, twice or three times a year, so Southern California became a third home. My work on mereology came in useful when we designed MEREOS, a conceptual scheme for alleviating the complexities of manufacturing engineering. Sadly, the days of large-scale bespoke software were over and the company shifted towards enterprise design. The Californian operation closed down and Chuck operated briefly for a while in Georgia, later moving to Buffalo with a temporary research position also at Leeds. But the strains proved too much for him, and after recovering from multiple heart by-pass surgery he died at the age of 52 from a massive heart attack. Though we were very different in many ways, our collaboration and friendship was like nothing else I have known, and some day I intend to document it more fully in print. The sense of intellectual excitement and innovation experienced at Ontek has animated and guided my work in ontology and metaphysics ever since, and proves that an innovative and intellectually stimulating environment can flourish outside academia.
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Peter Simons,
10 Jan 2012, 13:45
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