What is an Ontology?

This definition was originally proposed in 1992 and posted as shown below. See an updated definition of ontology (computer science) that accounts for the literature before and after that posting, with links to further readings.

Tom Gruber <gruber@ksl.stanford.edu>

Short answer:
An ontology is a specification of a conceptualization.

The word "ontology" seems to generate a lot of controversy in discussions about AI. It has a long history in philosophy, in which it refers to the subject of existence. It is also often confused with epistemology, which is about knowledge and knowing.

In the context of knowledge sharing, I use the term ontology to mean a specification of a conceptualization. That is, an ontology is a description (like a formal specification of a program) of the concepts and relationships that can exist for an agent or a community of agents. This definition is consistent with the usage of ontology as set-of-concept-definitions, but more general. And it is certainly a different sense of the word than its use in philosophy.

What is important is what an ontology is for. My colleagues and I have been designing ontologies for the purpose of enabling knowledge sharing and reuse. In that context, an ontology is a specification used for making ontological commitments. The formal definition of ontological commitment is given below. For pragmetic reasons, we choose to write an ontology as a set of definitions of formal vocabulary. Although this isn't the only way to specify a conceptualization, it has some nice properties for knowledge sharing among AI software (e.g., semantics independent of reader and context). Practically, an ontological commitment is an agreement to use a vocabulary (i.e., ask queries and make assertions) in a way that is consistent (but not complete) with respect to the theory specified by an ontology. We build agents that commit to ontologies. We design ontologies so we can share knowledge with and among these agents.

This definition is given in the article:

T. R. Gruber. A translation approach to portable ontologies. Knowledge Acquisition, 5(2):199-220, 1993. Available on line.

A more detailed description is given in

T. R. Gruber. Toward principles for the design of ontologies used for knowledge sharing. Presented at the Padua workshop on Formal Ontology, March 1993, later published in International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Vol. 43, Issues 4-5, November 1995, pp. 907-928. Available online.

With an excerpt attached.

Ontologies as a specification mechanism

A body of formally represented knowledge is based on a conceptualization: the objects, concepts, and other entities that are assumed to exist in some area of interest and the relationships that hold among them (Genesereth & Nilsson, 1987) . A conceptualization is an abstract, simplified view of the world that we wish to represent for some purpose. Every knowledge base, knowledge-based system, or knowledge-level agent is committed to some conceptualization, explicitly or implicitly.

An ontology is an explicit specification of a conceptualization. The term is borrowed from philosophy, where an Ontology is a systematic account of Existence. For AI systems, what "exists" is that which can be represented. When the knowledge of a domain is represented in a declarative formalism, the set of objects that can be represented is called the universe of discourse. This set of objects, and the describable relationships among them, are reflected in the representational vocabulary with which a knowledge-based program represents knowledge. Thus, in the context of AI, we can describe the ontology of a program by defining a set of representational terms. In such an ontology, definitions associate the names of entities in the universe of discourse (e.g., classes, relations, functions, or other objects) with human-readable text describing what the names mean, and formal axioms that constrain the interpretation and well-formed use of these terms. Formally, an ontology is the statement of a logical theory.[1]

We use common ontologies to describe ontological commitments for a set of agents so that they can communicate about a domain of discourse without necessarily operating on a globally shared theory. We say that an agent commits to an ontology if its observable actions are consistent with the definitions in the ontology. The idea of ontological commitments is based on the Knowledge-Level perspective (Newell, 1982) . The Knowledge Level is a level of description of the knowledge of an agent that is independent of the symbol-level representation used internally by the agent. Knowledge is attributed to agents by observing their actions; an agent "knows" something if it acts as if it had the information and is acting rationally to achieve its goals. The "actions" of agents---including knowledge base servers and knowledge-based systems--- can be seen through a tell and ask functional interface (Levesque, 1984) , where a client interacts with an agent by making logical assertions (tell), and posing queries (ask).

Pragmatically, a common ontology defines the vocabulary with which queries and assertions are exchanged among agents. Ontological commitments are agreements to use the shared vocabulary in a coherent and consistent manner. The agents sharing a vocabulary need not share a knowledge base; each knows things the other does not, and an agent that commits to an ontology is not required to answer all queries that can be formulated in the shared vocabulary.

In short, a commitment to a common ontology is a guarantee of consistency, but not completeness, with respect to queries and assertions using the vocabulary defined in the ontology.


[1] Ontologies are often equated with taxonomic hierarchies of classes, but class definitions, and the subsumption relation, but ontologies need not be limited to these forms. Ontologies are also not limited to conservative definitions, that is, definitions in the traditional logic sense that only introduce terminology and do not add any knowledge about the world (Enderton, 1972) . To specify a conceptualization one needs to state axioms that do constrain the possible interpretations for the defined terms.