Why the Semantic Web Is Hard (Part II)

Why the Semantic Web Is Hard (Part II)

Part 1 of this series was about the state of knowledge representation during the early 2000’s, when the first version of the Semantic Web was picking up steam. The main point was the following paragraph:

However, I’m pretty sure that the Semantic Web makes no sense. At least not in the way I was thinking about it. Sewing together large numbers of small knowledge bases into a coherent whole is hard.

The best way to think about this is through a concrete example. So, before we get to sewing together knowledge, though, I want to convince you that there is fragmented knowledge on the web already, in dataset form, that it’s incredibly valuable knowledge, and that that there are very high value problems which we don’t know the answers to, and won’t know the answers to, until we figure out how to sew together disparate knowledge bases.

Here’s an example of a big problem: Chronic Pain.

It’s a very big problem:

  • Somewhere between 50 Million and 100 Million Americans have chronic pain. It’s costing America $600+ billion dollars a year. Plus, all those people are in pain (see also: NIH Article from 2015 and The American Academy of Pain Medicine fact sheet.
  • The percentages are similar world-wide. Lots of people, lots of chronic pain, lots of suffering out there.
  • There’s not a lot of large-scale research going on. To quote from the Wed MD article cited above:

Committee member Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, noted that about a third of the population is affected by chronic pain — more people than are affected by heart diseasediabetes, and cancer combined — yet very little is spent on research to find better ways to manage pain.

Note also he’s not even talking about curing pain. He’s talking about managing pain. And that the costs mentioned above are purely monetary and don’t include things like the Opioid Crisis in America, which is almost certainly pain-related. And also note that, as the world population ages, this is going to be an even bigger problem. Solving pain, or even making an appreciable dent in the problem, is worth several Facebooks.

Even, so, there are treatments and there are small scale studies of those treatments. A great example is PEMF therapy (Pulsed Electromagnetic Fields). This, boiled down, is exposing inflamed or painful areas of the patient’s body to low-intensity and systematically varying magnetic fields.

Here’s what wikipedia says about PEMF:

Electromagnetic field therapy has been in use since the invention of electricity. It was widely adopted in East and Western Europe but its use was restricted to animals in North America until recently. Veterinarians became the first health professionals to use PEMF therapy, usually to heal broken legs in racehorses. In 2004, a pulsed electromagnetic field system was approved by the FDA as an adjunct to cervical fusion surgery in patients at high risk for non-fusion.

On 13 October 2015 the FDA reclassified PEMF devices from the Class 3 category to a Class 2 status. PEMF devices that have been FDA cleared to make health claims that require a doctor’s prescription for use.

That is, PEMF is simple– it’s placing an external device that generates magnetic fields next to painful body parts. No surgery, no drugs, nothing terribly invasive or complex in the application. It’s got established positive benefits (fractures heal faster and stronger when PEMF therapy is applied) and it doesn’t appear to be dangerous. So, because there are a lot of “wellness claims” bubbling up, PEMF devices are now “Class 2 devices” in the US and are becoming more readily available.

The wellness claims include:

  • Reducing pain, both short term and chronic.
  • Stimulating blood flow.
  • Helping surgical wounds to heal faster.
  • Helping to heal inflammation.

Note also that these are not just snake-oil salesmen making these claims. PubMed lists 592 journal articles which mention PEMF. Many of which are small-scale research studies.

At a guess, there are more than 2,000 small scale studies accessible on the web. Each written by medical professionals, most written with good intent, and most with data / information that is pertinent to the question of whether PEMF therapy can help with chronic pain.

And, it goes without saying, these are people trying hard to share knowledge with each other.

The question is: how would you, as a chronic pain sufferer, evaluate these health claims? Even though the devices have become cheaper, it’s still a $500 to $1500 purchase in order to get a “high quality” home-device.

Continue reading with Part III.

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