Richard Waters showcases the 'world wise web'

An article in the Financial Times takes a look at a bold vision for the Semantic Web, and postulates the 'world wise web'.
Written by Paul Miller, Contributor on

At the risk of getting tied in knots by timezones (x-8 to get on ZDNet's blog publishing timezone is hard when you only have two hands and need to keep typing...) and the distribution schedules of the print media, let me begin...

Richard Waters writes in this morning's (Tuesday) print edition of the Financial Times, positing that we are on the verge of 'reasoning' computers, and linking this prospect firmly to the vision of a Semantic Web. His feature, 'World-wise web? Finally on the horizon are computers that can reason,' includes comment from luminaries of the Semantic Web firmament like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Radar Networks CEO Nova Spivack, and Metaweb founder Danny Hillis, as well as those from the wider search technology domain such as Autonomy's Mike Lynch.

Early on, Waters postulates;

"Predicting where the next big disruptive change in the technology industry will come from is a perilous business. Google’s rise has been as much a result of its business model innovation as its technological supremacy. By using advertising to support its internet services, it may eventually be able to pull the rug from under Microsoft in more traditional software markets.

It seems a fair bet, though, that some of the biggest fortunes will continue to be made in Google’s area of focus: finding and manipulating information gathered from the world wide web. To hear the optimists in Silicon Valley describe it, a new wave of technology is on the way that will leave Google’s early advances in its wake.

Imagine, for instance, being able to ask a computer, 'Where should I go on holiday?' and receiving an answer that is as suitable as anything you could have come up with yourself."

We're some way off that vision; a vision that the Semantic Web's biggest advocate, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, recently described as 'too sci-fi'. Waters also hits the nail on the head with;

"Google’s rise has been as much a result of its business model innovation as its technological supremacy."

Just as Leif Eiriksson's voyage to Newfoundland did not presage the eleventh century Icelandic colonisation of North America, so have innumerable bright young things foundered in the technology world due to having the right idea at the wrong time.

Waters associates a high-stakes drive to enhance search technology with 'web 3.0' and the 'semantic web', before going on to suggest that;

"[n]ow, nearly seven years after [Tim Berners-Lee] outlined the idea, some supporters say enough pieces are in place to make the first semantic web services a reality. 'A bunch of people have started making applications that share data across the web,' says Thinking Machines’ Mr Hillis. Linking information in this way is a first step. The next will be to write software that can find and manipulate the data, opening the way to that automated advice on holiday destinations."

This echoes Berners-Lee's assertion in the interview last week that the core pieces of the Semantic Web are firmly in place. It was striking, though, to see Hillis held up as a semantic web supporter given his comments at Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle's Web 2.0 Summit last November.

The vision laid out in this article, especially as attributed to Danny Hillis and Powerset CEO Barney Pell, is bold and (unsurprisingly, given their background) owes much to the ambitions of researchers into Artificial Intelligence during the late 1980's and 90's. Is this really what the Semantic Web is about? Personally, I am rather more inclined to subscribe to the Berners-Lee view of this as 'too sci-fi' (for now). I remember the AI hype last time around. As a student at the time, I remember the bold promises of the ways in which AI would revolutionise (believe it or not) the classification of shiny red bits of Roman pottery. It didn't. And nor is it likely to make significant inroads with content on the open web any time soon. There is certainly scope for harnessing aspects of AI research within the confines of reasonably known and relatively homogenous corporate data sets of the type with which Autonomy currently excels, but out amongst the chaos and vitality of the open Web a less all-encompassing perspective is surely called for. As David Weinberger argues in his latest book, the real world defies neat and simplistic classification. This is not a bad thing.

This is where Twine, for one, has much to offer. So too (despite Hillis' characterisation) does Metaweb's Freebase and, indeed, the Platform capabilities of my own organisation.

Companies like Alex Iskold's AdaptiveBlue and Reuters' Clearforest are also clearly amongst those involved in pragmatically deploying semantic technologies across real and uncontrollable data today. None of these have the ability to answer Eric Schmidt's question of 'What shall I do tomorrow?,' but every one of them is capable of delivering real and measurable improvements in productivity for the individual and the enterprise... today.

The imposition of shared 'understanding' such as that required to support the inferences of Artificial Intelligences must surely be impractical. As Waters writes;

"To create those common ways of looking at the world, however, means crossing some deep political, philosophical and cultural divides. In areas such as religion, for instance, the meaning of words is closely tied to a broader world view. 'Who’s going to set all the rules?' asks Robert Cailliau, one of the developers of the worldwide web. 'You can say two plus two equals four. But there are things like the Bible and the Koran that also set out the rules about how you should see the world.'"

Conversations around the Semantic Web appear to turn to Artificial Intelligence, to world-spanning ontological representations of 'the truth', and to visions that are 'too sci-fi' with depressing and predictable regularity. On the ground, the truth is very different. On the ground, companies are attracting investment and selling products to customers by slowly, steadily, and steadfastly applying semantic technologies that work today. They are solving real problems for real businesses, today. In many cases, any semantic magic is deeply buried, with the end user often only superficially aware that their interaction with technology has been more accurate, more personal, better. Richard Waters reports Radar Networks' CEO Nova Spivack as saying;

"Most expect the impact of the technology to be felt in stages. The early advances are likely to be 'incremental improvements, and at first they won’t be that noticeable', says Mr Spivack. For instance, a wide range of web services should start to become 'smarter': search engines should return higher quality results, and services that rely on personalisation should make better guesses about your preferences, while targeted advertising systems should become more accurate."

The AI vision for the Semantic Web is quite exciting, and quite scary. There is plenty to do while we work through the technological, social and conceptual barriers between here and there, and it would be a mistake to assume otherwise. Radar Networks did not just secure $13million and a sizeable valuation on the vague promise of Artificial Intelligence. Reuters did not invest in Clearforest to acquire some intangible Artificial Intelligence. Let us watch the outputs of AI research with interest and with a scepticism healthily bolstered by the memory of those Roman pots. But let us also get on with delivering semantic real value - today - in the meantime.

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