Ask Fuzzy: Why Are Definitions Difficult? | Canberra weather



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Last week we stumbled into the tangled definition of what life is. A seemingly simple question hides a messy answer. When you think about it, it’s not just “life” that poses a problem for us (a metaphor if there is one). It is extremely difficult to find a definition that fits perfectly in a box. If you are reading this while sitting in a chair, take a saw and cut the backrest to 6 inches. Another chair? Now cut again to make 2 inches. When would you call it a stool instead of a chair? You can try it out with any item around the house (own expense). When does a knife become a spoon, or does a spoon become a fork? This is not a trivial exercise for reflection because it has serious ramifications. The line between “alive” and “dead” makes a huge difference in life insurance or even in criminal matters. Is it “dead” when there is no heartbeat, or is it the absence of a brain signal? The United States Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is one example of the considerable amount of work and expertise that goes into it. The blurb explains that it is “the product of over 10 years of efforts by hundreds of international experts in all aspects of mental health.” The DSM is used by the healthcare system to classify mental disorders for the purposes of diagnosis, treatment and research. A diagnosis of schizophrenia requires (in part) a significant impact on social or professional functioning for at least six months. This means that a person exhibiting these symptoms for five months is not eligible and the meaning “important” is subject to interpretation. If you were affected by an illness such as DSM, it could change your entitlement to health benefits. No matter how hard we try, the definitions get rubbery, but they have concrete consequences. Imagine then, the hellish world of a bureaucrat having to decide whether or not a chicken drumstick attracts the GST. The tax administration lists sports venues where the product is sold, including swimming pools and tennis centers. It does not mention the ping pong rooms, so this requires notice. And is it a social club or a business? Is a semi-raw drumstick ‘cooked’? Computers are generally very bad at handling vague definitions. It wasn’t that long ago that gender was considered a binary category – you’re either male or female and nothing in between. A method of responding to the vagaries of definitions was invented decades ago, but is rarely used in government systems. Fuzzy logic allows for degrees of classification so that a person can be, say, 70% male, which makes them masculine. Fuzzy Logic is also a science show on 2XX radio and a column in the ACM newspapers. Listen to the Fuzzy Logic Science Show at 11am Sundays on 2XX 98.3FM. Send your questions to Twitter @ FuzzyLogicSci



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