Lev Cribb's Blog

Making sense of… the Semantic Web (or Web 3.0)

I remember people using the term Web 3.0 when the ink of penning the term Web 2.0 was barely dry. At the time I dismissed it as people trying to be clever and simply not understanding the significance in the shift between the original web and web 2.0.

Maybe I was right, or maybe people were already then talking about the Semantic Web. I don’t know and unfortunately won’t be able to trace it back – either way, the shift between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 is significantly more of a big deal than the initial shift from 1.0 to 2.0. Here is why:

I really only started taking note of the term Semantic Web recently after I watched this talk Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired Magazine, held at the EG 2007 conference in Los Angeles. I found what he describes nothing short of mind-blowing and fascinating enough to write this blog post.

Initial questions:

Q: Does the semantic web already exist?
A: No. It is currently a vision, of which parts already exist, others are specified as principles, and yet others remain unknown.

Q: Is the semantic web not the same as semantic search?
A: No, semantic search is the principle of adding meta data to websites in an orderly and recognized fashion with the aim of improving the web’s searchability. While the two may be distant cousins, they are not the same.

Q: This all sounds too much like tech-geek stuff, why should I care?

A: Maybe you don’t need to care, but as with all tech-geek stuff, eventually it will become part of your daily routine, so you may as well check it out now and talk about it over the water cooler. Besides, your water cooler will be part of the Semantic Web before you know it.

Definition of the ‘semantic web’:

Let’s take a look at what Wikipedia says about the Semantic Web: “The semantic web is a vision of information that is understandable by computers, so that they can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, sharing, and combining information on the web.”

This sentence from Wikipedia gives us an initial insight into what is behind the Semantic Web. First of all, it confirms that it is a vision, and therefore not as such in full existence – at least for now. A second hint we get is from “information that is understandable by computers”. How is this different to machine code and programming languages of today?

Well, today’s websites and web applications behave in the same way as computers have done since they were invented. They are only as good as their programming, coding or initial input. And yes, there are many great applications that push that envelope and offer the user a better experience than the Turing Machine, but we are still miles away from creating artificial intelligence. It is artificial intelligence that is often defined as “the study and design or intelligent agents” and it is Tim Berners-Lee, the ‘inventor’ of the Internet, who – in 1999 – said about the semantic web:

“I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.”

With this quote he alludes to a Semantic Web essentially being driven by artificial intelligence – or – ‘intelligent agents’.

Ok, so we (kind of) understand that the Semantic Web is similar to artificial intelligence, but short of imagining Cyberdyne Systems what does that tell us? Let’s have a half-time summary.

Half-time summary:

We know that the semantic web does not yet exist as such, but that parts of it do. We know that semantic search and the Semantic Web are vaguely related, but not nearly the same. And we know that it is a vision of the Internet getting closer to some form of artificial intelligence network where machines talk to machines.

So, if it is not Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cyberdyne Systems, what is it? Some years ago I heard Bill Gates talking about services and software being web-based. At the time it was unrealistic as the Internet bandwidth alone was not large enough – let alone the technical specs of mainstream computers. A couple years later Google introduced Google Docs & Spreadsheets – the online equivalent of Microsoft’s Word and Excel. There was no more requirement to have the software installed on your own computer – all you need is a browser (now you see why Microsoft is taking the hit – time and time again – for trying to integrate their Internet Explorer browser into their software packages world-wide).

The Cloud

This trend will then eventually lead us to a web that contains all the programs and processing power you would ever need – while your own machine at home will be leaner, faster and also cheaper, as all it is used for is to access the web with all of its online services and software. This version of the web, with the vast processing power that is generated through increased online speed and server capacity is generally referred to as The Cloud.

It helped me to think of the difference between the original Web and the Cloud as the difference between a puppet theatre and a real theatre. Puppets (obviously!) have no life of their own and therefore are ‘operated’ by a puppeteer, ie externally. A real theatre, on the other hand, has actors with brains that are self-sufficient and operate by themselves (as humans do) and in a group. They can talk to each other, interact, learn from mistakes and each other and engage with all aspects of the theatre, set, play, audience and fellow cast members. You can think of the Cloud being the same, in terms of interactivity, independence and growth. Each part of the Cloud will be a stand-alone operative, instead of being a reactive responder.

What this also means is that all objects, which are currently not part of the Web, will become part of it. We can already see this trend with some of our everyday objects, such as fridges, car radios, or even entire houses. The connection of everyday objects to the Internet is inevitable as the processing power and speed of microchips and computing units increases. As they become more powerful and ever more cost effective, the benefits of their use in everyday products to make our lives easier and more flexible become obvious.

If you compare computer connections (be that through laptops, servers, hand-held PDAs, mobile phones etc) with their clicks, links, transistors etc. to the human brain with its synapses, neurons and memory, Kevin Kelly observes that the internet is currently equivalent to one human brain. Quoting Moore’s law – he then calculates that by 2040 the processing power of the Internet will have outperformed the entire brain processing power of mankind.

He argues that while the smaller devices, such as your PDA or iPhone, or even your home computer or laptop are only ‘windows’ to seeing what is going on below the surface, that the other connected devices, such as servers and other computers form one big machine, which is The Cloud.

Connecting data

When I mentioned before that your water-cooler will eventually be part of the Semantic Web, I wasn’t joking. The Internet of the future will include a connection to most if not all things.

What this means in practice is entirely up to our imaginations, but products like Nike+ or Wifi-radio in cars are only the beginning. Why don’t you take a look around you and pick out one or two items in your life that you know don’t have any microchips in them. Then have a think about what their future connection to the Internet might look like.

Once we get our heads around this aspect the nature of the Semantic Web becomes clear to us. As Kevin Kelly explains: The early Internet connected computers, and today’s Web connects webpages – however, the Semantic Web connects data. In other words, anything that has a data processing unit will be part of the Semantic Web. This is radically different to the Web of today, which is probably why any terminology using the word ‘Web’ (such as Web 3.0 or Semantic Web) can be misleading.

Conclusion:

We have covered a lot – but let’s look at what we know. We know that the Semantic Web, Web 3.0 or The Cloud, does not yet exist, but that it is forming slowly but surely. It is not a program or device that is produced by one company or group, but consists of many parts, which will ultimately cover most or all things. It will be a network of devices or machines, which will be made up of anything that has a microchip and most things will end up having microchips of some kind. These machines will be able to communicate with each other. They will be able to exchange data and this data will be accessible through other devices, which will be leaner, faster and cheaper versions of today’s PDAs or laptops. The exchange and linking of the data between all things will be what we currently call the Semantic Web, Web 3.0 or The Cloud. It will be the complete connection and interactivity of all things.

I would love to hear about your thoughts on the Semantic Web – why not post a comment below and let me know what you think. Is it a good thing, or a bad thing? Will it make life easier or will it limit us and our freedom? What do you think?

Also, let me know what you would like to see next in this series of “Making Sense of…” – of course I have a couple of ideas, but would like to know what you want to make sense of. Thanks.

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2 Responses

  1. […] This post was Twitted by spotonpr […]

  2. Ewan Anderson says:

    Very good mate. I have to tell you i had absolutely no idea the robots were coming to take over.

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