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Semantic Nets

An example of a semantic network

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A semantic network or net is a graphic notation for representing knowledge in patterns of interconnected nodes and arcs. Computer implementations of semantic networks were first developed for artificial intelligence and machine translation, but earlier versions have long been used in philosophy, psychology, and linguistics.

What is common to all semantic networks is a declarative graphic representation that can be used either to represent knowledge or to support automated systems for reasoning about knowledge. Some versions are highly informal, but other versions are formally defined systems of logic. Following are six of the most common kinds of semantic networks, each of which is discussed in detail in one section of this article.

  • A definitional network emphasizes the subtype or is-a relation between a concept type and a newly defined subtype. The resulting network, also called a generalization or subsumption hierarchy, supports the rule of inheritance for copying properties defined for a super type to all of its subtypes. Since definitions are true by definition, the information in these networks is often assumed necessarily true.
  • Assertional networks are designed to assert propositions. Unlike definitional networks, the information in an assertional network is assumed contingently true, unless it is explicitly marked with a modal operator. Some assertional networks have been proposed as models of the conceptual structures underlying natural language semantics.
  • Implicational networks use implication as the primary relation for connecting nodes. They may be used to represent patterns of beliefs, causality, or inferences.
  • Executable networks include some mechanism, such as marker passing or attached procedures, which can perform inferences, pass messages, or search for patterns and associations.
  • Learning networks build or extend their representations by acquiring knowledge from examples. The new knowledge may change the old network by adding and deleting nodes and arcs or by modifying numerical values, called weights, associated with the nodes and arcs.
  • Hybrid networks combine two or more of the previous techniques, either in a single network or in separate, but closely interacting networks.

Some of the networks have been explicitly designed to implement hypotheses about human cognitive mechanisms, while others have been designed primarily for computer efficiency. Sometimes, computational reasons may lead to the same conclusions as psychological evidence. The distinction between definitional and assertional networks, for example, has a close parallel to Tulving’s (1972) distinction between semantic memory and episodic memory.

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