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Formal Methods for the Informal World
Organizers: Francien Dechesne, Virginia Dignum, Frank Dignum, Bruce Edmonds, Liz Sonenberg
Short description of the workshop:
In the field of computer science, the term ‘Formal Methods’ is used to indicate the application of mathematical structures, languages and techniques for specification and verification of computer systems: formal systems. Stimulated by the increasing availability of computational power, the use of formal models is spreading quickly also for ‘informal systems’, e.g. those involving human interaction. The aim of this workshop is to explore and reflect with computer scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and social scientists, in which ways formal methods can be useful outside of the formal world, and to contribute to the methodology of applying formal methods in the social sciences.
As usual in interdisciplinary settings, discussions arose around central concepts, such as “formal” and “model”. These discussions brought general insight into common misunderstandings, for example about the purpose of building models: this varies greatly over and within disciplines, but is seldom made explicit.
There was active debate on validation of formal models. Although we did not formally survey the participants, it was evident from the informal interactions over coffee and in the corridors, that many participants left the workshop with new perspectives – sometimes these were in the form of awareness of subfields they had not previously been exposed to, and sometime these took the form of novel angles on familiar concepts.
Because the discussions threads remained very vivid up to the end of the workshop, we decided to continue the discussion online. We installed a blog for this purpose (http://in-formal.tudelft.nl) to which all workshop participants were invited to contribute. We expect that these continued exchanges will result in a small number of related articles and responses, out of which a special issue of a journal may grow.
The backgrounds of the participants were nicely mixed over the spectrum from formal to informal. There was constant interaction within the one-week community that we formed, perhaps surprisingly given the number of plenary talks that were on the more theoretical or formal side of the spectrum. Our program choice to set the stage on Monday with a keynote from psychology, worked well in this respect, and we should give credit to all speakers for striking the right balance for the interdisciplinary audience. Also, the fact that many participants actively came forward with their personal experiences and questions both in the discussion sessions and during the talks, created coherence throughout the program and the group.
As a breath of fresh air, we profited from the sudden (and short-lived) Spring weather for a “cyclic reasoning” discussion, including sea views, for which the interested participants rented bikes from the Lorentz Center. Also we invited a harpist/singer and trombone player for the wine and cheese party, to provide an unexpected intermezzo in the long first day of talking (with the motto: “Music, after silence, comes closest to expressing the inexpressible” – Aldous Huxley). They played two short sets with an eclectic music choice (Bach to Beck), much to the appreciation of the participants.
The facilities of the Lorentz contributed markedly to the success of the workshop. Providing access to offices for individual ‘quiet time’ complemented by the shared common room space is excellent. The lunch arrangements worked very well – encouraging further mixing of the group – and the food quality was good.