Semantic Technology Conference kicks off with Keynotes from Open Calais and Siri

This year's Semantic Technology Conference got fully underway this morning, with Keynote presentations from Tom Tague of Thomson Reuters' Open Calais Initiative and Tom Gruber from Siri.Despite the wider economic situation, attendance for this fifth year of the event feels a little up on last year, and there's clearly real enthusiasm in the buzzing Halls.
Written by Paul Miller, Contributor

This year's Semantic Technology Conference got fully underway this morning, with Keynote presentations from Tom Tague of Thomson Reuters' Open Calais Initiative and Tom Gruber from Siri.

Despite the wider economic situation, attendance for this fifth year of the event feels a little up on last year, and there's clearly real enthusiasm in the buzzing Halls.

Tague's Open Calais has been one of the success stories for useful and easy application of semantic technologies beyond a core community of enthusiasts and adopters, and has been covered here and on Cloud of Data a number of times since it launched. Just today, they announced a new set of partners and a postal service that should remove one more perceived barrier for another set of potential adopters.

Speaking to the theme of 'Web 3.0 - the Web of Me,' Tague's abstract suggests;

"The mainstream adoption of Web 2.0 technologies – from RSS feeds to social networks – is hastening the demise of the portal. With each new face on Facebook, and each new Twitter account, our once routine habits and traffic patterns shift. This wave of change in the way we consume, transact and interact on the Web is dis-intermediating 'destination' sites of all kinds. Our once centralized content has been atomized.

And yet our fundamental problem persists. We're overwhelmed with input, yet still can't find the one thing we need... now.

Semantic technologies – and the content interoperability and Linked Data connections they beget – offer new hope. That is not to say the answer lies in building new search engines, and few would argue for another news aggregator. Rather, our point of inflection lies at the point of consumption. Our task is to simultaneously refine and enrich our digital experience of everything from content and community to commerce."

Early on, Tague made a 'non-apologetic statement;'

"People need to start deriving financial benefits from semantic technology. It's time"


Tague looks back at the move from 'Web 1.0,' described as 'the last Web we agreed on,' to 'Web 2.0,' which he sees as largely defined by the 'addition of social.' Today, he reckons, we are 'extraordinarily content-rich', 'extraordinarily information-poor' and 'experientially deficient.' Despite a wealth of content, we are failing to make the most of it.

'We're at the inflection point' where 'innovation is exploding' as we move from developing and inventing toward mainstream adoption of technologies in the semantic technology space. Lots of things will be tried; 90% will fail, but that's ok.

'Everyone needs plumbing,' and that's what Calais is; semantic plumbing. 13 version releases in 18 months; about 100 presentations, 13,000 registered Open Calais developers, a million great ideas.

Tague reckons the various efforts he comes in contact with fall into six broad buckets;

Tools; Social; Advertising; Search; Publishing; Interface.

First, Enabling Tools. Data Management, Data generation, Databases, Integration and workflow. 'A big yes.' 'We need tools.' Everyone needs tools, especially as you move from early adopters toward the mainstream. Tools build the bridges that cross the chasm to enterprise adoption.

Enterprise adoption will not happen because it's cool. Enterprise adoption will not be talked about on Twitter. Enterprise adoption will happen because it's cheaper/faster/better than what they have just now.

'Tool vendors need to simplify their story; it's not about more functionality.' 'If I can't understand your story, then Enterprise IT certainly can't'

Second, 'let's put some frosting on top of social.' 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could...' Some of it might be cool, but there's a challenge in monetising social. Adding frosting to the top of an industry that hasn't worked out its own monetisation is fraught with risk.

'I haven't seen a compelling story yet.'

Next, advertising. Almost a dirty word in the semantic technology domain last year. But advertising is fuel, and semantic technologies have a clear role to play in enhancing advertising (see my podcast with Scott Brinker from last year...).

Semantic search; 'the semantic industry's brilliant yet under-achieving child.' The answer to a question no one is asking? General, consumer-facing semantic search... directly competing with Google et al? Not viable.

But vertical search in specific domains... a huge growth opportunity, and people are willing to invest the time, effort and money to make it happen. Room for a handful of players in each domain?

Search; 'a bifurcated marketplace.'

Publishing; content producers, editorial/aggregation, 'robotic publishing.'

'Classic publishers can get enormous value from this technology... not all of the value is in the user experience.' Much of the value is being found in the back office, making existing data and investments work harder.

Little value in 'robotic publishing,' because the content isn't that readable. Aggregation services like Huffington Post and Daily Me present 'enormous opportunities.'

Interface; gaming a huge and growing market. $57bn industry. A 'seamless, interactive and responsive experience,' it's 'graphically engaging and fun.'

Zemanta, AdaptiveBlue, Feedly, Apture et al 'trying to make the consumption experience different' [better?]. Not suggesting that these are like a game, but many of the drivers may be similar?

"People are on their mobile devices and in the browser; go where the people are." Which links well to the next keynote... :-)

"Do you care about semantics or about user value?"

"Don't fund/buy semantic infrastructure beyond what you need; use infrastructure built by others where possible."

"Think very hard about the user experience; make it compelling and exciting."

Following Tague's presentation, Tom Gruber took to the stage to talk about Siri; a company building a Virtual Personal Assistant (with an interesting iPhone app to start things off) that we discussed during a podcast last week. As Gruber's says;

"We are beginning to see a new interaction paradigm for the web: the Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA). A VPA is task focused: it helps you get things done. You interact with it in natural language, in a conversation. It gets to know you, acts on your behalf, and gets better with time. The VPA paradigm builds on the information and services of the web, with new technical challenges of semantic intent understanding, context awareness, service delegation, and mass personalization.

Siri is a virtual personal assistant for the mobile Internet. Although just in its infancy, Siri can help with some common tasks that human assistants do, such as booking a restaurant, getting tickets to a show, and inviting a friend. We will describe the technology underlying Siri and how it fits in the larger ecosystem of services and data providers. And we will offer a vision of where assistants like Siri are going."

Tom starts off by showing the Knowledge Navigator video from Apple... which dates all the way back to 1987. Many of the ideas are now coming to fruition; touch screens, a global network, awareness of temporal and social context, speech in and out, a 'conversational interface,' 'delegation of work' to the machine, and trusted use of personal data.

Is the Knowledge Navigator possible today? 'No, but we're getting there.'

Siri is pretty close... in certain well understood contexts, as Gruber shows in a video demo of the evolving iPhone application.

What is a Virtual Personal Assistant? It does things for you; it's task-oriented. It understands your intent via a conversational metaphor. It gets to know you; it's not the same for everybody, unlike a search engine.

'Service delegation [like Siri]; the mother of all mashups'

'Context is king' in communicating with a VPA; where am I, what time is it, who am I, etc.

"This really is the beginning of the age of the start of Virtual Assistants."

Need to solve authorisation/ authentication. If we reach a 'data commons' there will be more, better, information to drive choices and decisions.

Tom Tague is a regular member of the Semantic Web Gang podcast, which I moderate. Tom Gruber was the latest guest in my Executive Briefing podcast series.

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