The Future of Human Knowledge: The Semantic Web
Some serious computer scientists, although cautious about the promise of the Semantic Web, are ultimately optimistic that it will be everything developers are hoping for -- an online source for all of the knowledge humanity has created in science, business and the arts.
Under an interdisciplinary project collectively known as the Semantic Web, computer scientists around the world are working on ways to revolutionize the Internet. The researchers -- from Europe, Asia and the United States -- are developing standards, protocols and technologies that will advance the development of a more meaning-oriented Web.
"The aim of the Semantic Web efforts is to be able to find and access Web sites and Web resources not by keywords, as Google does today, but by descriptions of their contents and capabilities," Jerry Hobbs, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, told TechNewsWorld. "A lot of tools are being developed right now to make that happen."
Based on an array of technologies and techniques, these tools include agent, database, language and human-computer interface technologies -- in addition to a branch of research known as knowledge discovery, a field that investigates how to mine data more efficiently and effectively.
Scientists at several computer companies and at some of the world's top universities -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, Kyoto University and Stanford University -- are independently collaborating on the project, which is led by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) -- whose network back in the 1960s formed the basis for what today is the Net -- is funding some of the work. Even Tim Berners-Lee, famed inventor of the Web, is contributing to the project.
"The Web exists as a distributed sort of information base," Lee Giles, founding scientist at the NEC Research Institute at Penn State University, told TechNewsWorld. Researchers are hoping that the technologies under development will make it easier for users to search the Web as if it were a proprietary, private database.
According to this vision -- which optimists say will be realized only a few years from now -- a search on the Net will be conducted according to the searcher's needs and will be expressed in ordinary language.
"I want to buy a first edition copy of Gone with the Wind at a store in Beverly Hills this afternoon" is how searchers soon will look through search engines to find information, said Hobbs.
Right now, this kind of search capability is impossible because Web search engines require that users guess the right keywords to find what they seek. However, several maturing technologies are considered the most likely keys to fulfilling the goals of the Semantic Web project. These technologies, already tried and tested in research labs, will help make the Semantic Web a reality:
While these technologies will figure prominently in the Semantic Web of the future, today the Semantic Web is more of a vision than a reality, said Steve Woods, a strategic consultant with developer Extreme Logic. "According to analysts, the Semantic Web, which will understand human language, will replace the current Web by 2005," Woods told TechNewsWorld. "But we believe it will be more like 2010."
For some, the move to a smarter Web is taking far too long. "The Semantic Web might be a cure for our e-commerce ills, but for many businesses, waiting around for it isn't an option," Rich Baldwin, a spokesperson for software maker Xaffire, told TechNewsWorld.
Some e-commerce companies -- impatient at the progress of the Semantic Web project -- are looking into other stop-gap technologies to meet their needs today. Many companies are turning to software agents to take over routine e-commerce chores, such as helping manufacturers find and negotiate with parts suppliers.
Even researchers are looking at short-term solutions to the problem of increasing the intelligence of Web searches. Herndon, Virginia-based Language Analysis Systems developed technologies that helped the government search databases for the Arabic names of the 9-11 hijackers in Florida. This kind of name-searching technology also could be applicable to the Web, Jack Hermansen, founder of the firm, told TechNewsWorld.
At Penn State University, researchers are developing niche search engines to meet the needs of people with similar interests, such as employees at a particular company or members of the same profession. By limiting online searching to a single subject area, a niche search engine could delve deeper into today's Web and provide more readily useful information for searchers.
This kind of technology has commercial applications today, as companies like Intelliseek are trying to provide users with business intelligence over the Web, including mining corporate Web sites for competitive intelligence information, such as lists of customer names, said Sue MacDonald, a spokesperson for Intelliseek.
Use of search agents online -- infobots, scouring the Web and sifting relevant sites for users -- would alone provide a "major boost in productivity at work and at home," said Extreme Logic's Woods.
Some serious computer scientists, although cautious about the promise of the Semantic Web, are ultimately optimistic that it will be everything developers are hoping for -- an online source for all of the knowledge that humanity has created in science, business and the arts.
"Of course, hype always outruns reality in these things," said USC's Hobbs. "But in this case, I think reality will plug along and catch up."