Microsoft's acquisition of Powerset signals a the building of a future when the entire world will likely have access to virtual “software agents” who will “roam” across the Web, making our travel arrangements, doctor's appointments and basically taking care of all the day-to-day hassles for humankind. It’s a great vision, but it will never be achieved with today's current Internet.
As much as we’ve come to know and love the current World Wide Web—we have to admit that it isn't very smart. One webpage is the same as any other. It might have a higher “ranking”, but there's no distinction based on actual meaning. That’s why many Internet wizards believe it is time for Web 3.0, or the “semantic Web”. It’s one of the hottest buzzwords in computer science today. Why? Because it promises to bring order to chaos, and make our lives simpler.
Indeed, the Web we have now is a cloud of largely undifferentiated information, but companies like Metaweb Technologies and Radar Networks have an ultimate goal of building a semantic Web structure that would turn all that disarray into a neatly archived library. Think of it as a semantic Wikipedia—for all of the world's knowledge.
A new generation of techies is already in the early stages of developing a semantic Web ("Semantics" is the branch of linguistics concerned with meaning), which will act more like a series of connected databases, where all information resides in a structured form. Within that structure is a layer of description that adds meaning that the computer can understand. To build this smarter Web, innovators are looking for ways to get machines to do the dirty work for us.
Right now the current Web’s fundamental flaw is that it's just a compendium of billions of text documents, which are designed to be read by human beings. You can search it with keywords, but the results aren't useful until you complete the arduous task of sorting through all the “junk” yourself in order to find the page that has the particular info you want. Services like Google help us sift, but it's still up to people to sort through seemingly endless search results. Indeed, the web does seem like a hopelessly sloppy mess at times. Alas, machines could technically do the “dirty work” for us, and much more quickly and efficiently at that.
In order to take it to the next level, and move from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0—the information in documents will have to be turned into data that machines can read and evaluate autonomously. Only then will computers be able to take over tasks we now have to do ourselves, such as find the nearest restaurant, book the best flight, or buy the cheapest video game.
Think of it as the difference between two dimensions and three dimensions. "People will see the Web start to become smarter," says Nova Spivack of Radar Networks. "Eventually it will have some reasoning capabilities built into it."
For Spivack, the semantic Web begins now with the data engine and user applications he and his team are prepping for launch—and ends at some point in the future with artificially intelligent software agents handling all the online drudgery of our business and professional live.
A semantic Web would be very disruptive. Some say it will wield the power to unseat today's Internet titans like Google, and Yahoo. It's being vigorously pursued by startups like Garlik, Metaweb Technologies, Powerset, and ZoomInfo, as well as bigger corporations like Eli Lilly, Kodak, Oracle, including Google and Yahoo themselves.
So what type of backgrounds is needed to have a fighting chance of developing something this incredible? A deep expertise in statistics, bioinformatics, and artificial intelligence is a starter. Knowing how neural transmitters work in the brain might be helpful as well. Obviously it will have to be a collaborative effort from experts in many fields. Again, for the semantic Web to work, online information needs to be made readable by machines.
Right now the semantic Web is still a work in progress. Don't expect a sci-fi software agent that takes care of your every whim just yet warns Spivack. "Those people who think we will be offering Hal 9000 when this goes public will be disappointed," he says. But it’s a start!
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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