I’ve posted a link to a video of my best talk — given at the GRID ’08 Conference in Stockholm this summer. It’s about the growth of collective intelligence and the Semantic Web, and the future and role the media. Read more and get the video here. Enjoy!
I highly recommend this new book on Collective Intelligence. It features chapters by a Who’s Who of thinkers on Collective Intelligence, including a chapter by me about “Harnessing the Collective Intelligence of the World Wide Web.”
Here is the full-text of my chapter, minus illustrations (the rest of the book is great and I suggest you buy it to have on your shelf. It’s a big volume and worth the read):
There has been a lot of hype about artificial intelligence over the years. And recently it seems there has been a resurgence in interest in this topic in the media. But artificial intelligence scares me. And frankly, I don’t need it. My human intelligence is quite good, thank you very much. And as far as trusting computers to make intelligent decisions on my behalf, I’m skeptical to say the least. I don’t need or want artificial intelligence.
No, what I really need is artificial stupidity.
I need software that will automate all the stupid things I presently have to waste far too much of my valuable time on. I need something to do all the stupid tasks — like organizing email, filing documents, organizing folders, remembering things, coordinating schedules, finding things that are of interest, filtering out things that are not of interest, responding to routine messages, re-organizing things, linking things, tracking things, researching prices and deals, and the many other rote information tasks I deal with every day.
The human brain is the result of millions of years of evolution. It’s already the most intelligent thing on this planet. Why are we wasting so much of our brainpower on tasks that don’t require intelligence? The next revolution in software and the Web is not going to be artificial intelligence, it’s going to be creating artificial stupidity: systems that can do a really good job at the stupid stuff, so we have more time to use our intelligence for higher level thinking.
The next wave of software and the Web will be about making software and the Web smarter. But when we say "smarter" we don’t mean smart like a human is smart, we mean "smarter at doing the stupid things that humans aren’t good at." In fact humans are really bad at doing relatively simple, "stupid" things — tasks that don’t require much intelligence at all.
For example, organizing. We are terrible organizers. We are lazy, messy, inconsistent, and we make all kinds of errors by accident. We are terrible at tagging and linking as well, it turns out. We are terrible at coordinating or tracking multiple things at once because we are easily overloaded and we can really only do one thing well at a time. These kinds of tasks are just not what our brains are good at. That’s what computers are for – or should be for at least.
Humans are really good at higher level cognition: complex thinking, decisionmaking, learning, teaching, inventing, expressing, exploring, planning, reasoning, sensemaking, and problem solving — but we are just terrible at managing email, or making sense of the Web. Let’s play to our strengths and use computers to compensate for our weaknesses.
I think it’s time we stop talking about artificial intelligence — which nobody really needs, and fewer will ever trust. Instead we should be working on artificial stupidity. Sometimes the less lofty goals are the ones that turn out to be most useful in the end.
My company, Radar Networks, has just come out of stealth. We’ve announced what we’ve been working on all these years: It’s called Twine.com. We’re going to be showing Twine publicly for the first time at the Web 2.0 Summit tomorrow. There’s lot’s of press coming out where you can read about what we’re doing in more detail. The team is extremely psyched and we’re all working really hard right now so I’ll be brief for now. I’ll write a lot more about this later.
A security researcher has figured out a novel way to compromise the security of messages traveling in the Tor anonymizer network. Messages in the Tor network are encrypted as they travel from node to node to their final destination. But the last node has to decrypt the messages before it can deliver them to their final destination on the Internet. Many Tor users mistakenly believe their message remains encrypted through the entire Tor network, when in fact this is not the case: the last node must decrypt them. The researcher simply ran a few of these nodes and was able to read all unencrypted last-node traffic that came through them. This included sensitive communications of many government embassies around the world. The researcher believes that intelligence agencies around the world are already taking advantage of this weakness to eavesdrop on Tor traffic. Interestingly, when he pointed this security hole out to some of the embassies that were sending non-secure message they didn’t respond or even appear to understand the problem. Read more here.
Web 3.0 — aka The Semantic Web — is about enriching the connections of the Web. By enriching the connections within the Web, the entire Web may become smarter.
I believe that collective intelligence primarily comes from connections — this is certainly the case in the brain where the number of connections between neurons far outnumbers the number of neurons; certainly there is more "intelligence" encoded in the brain’s connections than in the neurons alone. There are several kinds of connections on the Web:
- Connections between information (such as links)
- Connections between people (such as opt-in social relationships, buddy lists, etc.)
- Connections between applications (web services, mashups, client server sessions, etc.)
- Connections between information and people (personal data collections, blogs, social bookmarking, search results, etc.)
- Connections between information and applications (databases and data sets stored or accessible by particular apps)
- Connections between people and applications (user accounts, preferences, cookies, etc.)
Are there other kinds of connections that I haven’t listed — please let me know!
I believe that the Semantic Web can actually enrich all of these types of connections, adding more semantics not only to the things being connected (such as representations of information or people or apps) but also to the connections themselves.
In the Semantic Web approach, connections are represented with statements of the form (subject, predicate, object) where the elements have URIs that connect them to various ontologies where their precise intended meaning can be defined. These simple statements are sometimes called "triples" because they have three elements. In fact, many of us are working with statements that have more than three elements ("tuples"), so that we can represent not only subject, predicate, object of statements, but also things like provenance (where did the data for the statement come from?), timestamp (when was the statement made), and other attributes. There really is no limit to what kind of metadata can be stored in these statements. It’s a very simple, yet very flexible and extensible data model that can represent any kind of data structure.
The important point for this article however is that in this data model rather than there being just a single type of connection (as is the case on the present Web which basically just provides the HREF hotlink, which simply means "A and B are linked" and may carry minimal metadata in some cases), the Semantic Web enables an infinite range of arbitrarily defined connections to be used. The meaning of these connections can be very specific or very general.
For example one might define a type of connection called "friend of" or a type of connection called "employee of" — these have very different meanings (different semantics) which can be made explicit and also machine-readable using OWL. By linking a page about a person with the "employee of" link to another page about a different person, we can express that one of them employs the other. That is a statement that any application which can read OWL is able to see and correctly interpret, by referencing the underlying definition of "employee of" which is defined in some ontology and might for example specify that an "employee of" relation connects a person to a person or organization who is their employer. In other words, rather than just linking things with the generic "hotlink" we are all used to, they can now be linked with specific kinds of links that have very particular and unambiguous meaning and logical implications.
This has the potential at least to dramatically enrich the information-carrying capacity of connections (links) on the Web. It means that connections can carry more meaning, on their own. It’s a new place to put meaning in fact — you can put meaning between things to express their relationships. And since connections (links) far outnumber objects (information, people or applications) on the Web, this means we can radically improve the semantics of the structure of the Web as a whole — the Web can become more meaningful, literally. This makes a difference, even if all we do is just enrich connections between gross-level objects (in other words, connections between Web pages or data records, as opposed to connections between concepts expressed within them, such as for example, people and companies mentioned within a single document).
Even if the granularity of this improvement in connection technology is relatively gross level it could still be a major improvement to the Web. The long-term implications of this have hardly been imagined let alone understood — it is analogous to upgrading the dendrites in the human brain; it could be a catalyst for new levels of computation and intelligence to emerge.
It is important to note that, as illustrated above, there are many types of connections that involve people. In other words the Semantic Web, and Web 3.0, are just as much about people as they are about other things. Rather than excluding people, they actually enrich their relationships to other things. The Semantic Web, should, among other things, enable dramatically better social networking and collaboration to take place on the Web. It is not only about enriching content.
Now where will all these rich semantic connections come from? That’s the billion dollar question. Personally I think they will come from many places: from end-users as they find things, author content, bookmark content, share content and comment on content (just as hotlinks come from people today), as well as from applications which mine the Web and automatically create them. Note that even when Mining the Web a lot of the data actually still comes from people — for example, mining the Wikipedia, or a social network yields lots of great data that was ultimately extracted from user-contributions. So mining and artificial intelligence does not always imply "replacing people" — far from it! In fact, mining is often best applied as a means to effectively leverage the collective intelligence of millions of people.
These are subtle points that are very hard for non-specialists to see — without actually working with the underlying technologies such as RDF and OWL they are basically impossible to see right now. But soon there will be a range of Semantically-powered end-user-facing apps that will demonstrate this quite obviously. Stay tuned!
Of course these are just my opinions from years of hands-on experience with this stuff, but you are free to disagree or add to what I’m saying. I think there is something big happening though. Upgrading the connections of the Web is bound to have a significant effect on how the Web functions. It may take a while for all this to unfold however. I think we need to think in decades about big changes of this nature.
The Business 2.0 Article on Radar Networks and the Semantic Web just came online. It’s a huge article. In many ways it’s one of the best popular articles written about the Semantic Web in the mainstream press. It also goes into a lot of detail about what Radar Networks is working on.
One point of clarification, just in case anyone is wondering…
Web 3.0 is not just about machines — it’s actually all about humans — it leverages social networks, folksonomies, communities and social filtering AS WELL AS the Semantic Web, data mining, and artificial intelligence. The combination of the two is more powerful than either one on it’s own. Web 3.0 is Web 2.0 + 1. It’s NOT Web 2.0 – people. The "+ 1" is the
addition of software and metadata that help people and other
applications organize and make better sense of the Web. That new layer
of semantics — often called "The Semantic Web" — will add to and
build on the existing value provided by social networks, folksonomies,
and collaborative filtering that are already on the Web.
So at least here at Radar Networks, we are focusing much of our effort on facilitating people to help them help themselves, and to help each other, make sense of the Web. We leverage the amazing intelligence of the human brain, and we augment that using the Semantic Web, data mining, and artificial intelligence. We really believe that the next generation of collective intelligence is about creating systems of experts not expert systems.
I’ve been thinking since 1994 about how to get past a fundamental barrier to human social progress, which I call “The Collective IQ Barrier.” Most recently I have been approaching this challenge in the products we are developing at my stealth venture, Radar Networks.
In a nutshell, here is how I define this barrier:
The Collective IQ Barrier: The potential collective intelligence of a human group is exponentially proportional to group size, however in practice the actual collective intelligence that is achieved by a group is inversely proportional to group size. There is a huge delta between potential collective intelligence and actual collective intelligence in practice. In other words, when it comes to collective intelligence, the whole has the potential to be smarter than the sum of its parts, but in practice it is usually dumber.
Why does this barrier exist? Why are groups generally so bad at tapping the full potential of their collective intelligence? Why is it that smaller groups are so much better than large groups at innovation, decision-making, learning, problem solving, implementing solutions, and harnessing collective knowledge and intelligence?
I think the problem is technological, not social, at its core. In this article I will discuss the problem in more depth and then I will discuss why I think the Semantic Web may be the critical enabling technology for breaking through the Collective IQ Barrier.
The Effective Size of Groups
For millions of years — in fact since the dawn of humanity — humansocial organizations have been limited in effective size. Groups aremost effective when they are small, but they have less collectiveknowledge at their disposal. Slightly larger groups optimize both effectiveness and access to resources such as knowledge and expertise. In my own experience working on many different kinds of teams, I think that the sweet-spot is between 20and 50 people. Above this size groups rapidly become inefficient andunproductive.
The Invention of Hierarchy
The solution that humans have used to get around this limitation in the effective size of groups is hierarchy.When organizations grow beyond 50 people we start to break them intosub-organizations of less than 50 people. As a result if you look atany large organization, such as a Fortune 100 corporation, you find ahuge complex hierarchy of nested organizations and cross-functionalorganizations. This hierarchy enables the organization to createspecialized “cells” or “organs” of collective cognition aroundparticular domains (like sales, marketing, engineering, HR, strategy,etc.) that remain effective despite the overall size of theorganization.
By leveraging hierarchy an organization of even hundreds ofthousands of members can still achieve some level of collective IQ as awhole. The problem however is that the collective IQ of the wholeorganization is still quite a bit lower than the combined collectiveIQ’s of the sub-organizations that comprise it. Even in well-structured, well-managed hierarchies, the hierarchy is still less thanthe sum of it’s parts. Hierarchy also has limits — the collective IQof an organization is also inversely proportional to the number ofgroups it contains, and the average number of levels of hierarchybetween those groups (Perhaps this could be defined more elegantly asan inverse function of the average network distance between groups inan organization).
The reason that organizations today still have to make suchextensive use of hierarchy is that our technologies for managingcollaboration, community, knowledge and intelligence on a collectivescale are still extremely primitive. Hierarchy is still one of the only and best solutions we have at our disposal. But we’re getting better fast.
Modern organizations are larger and far more complex than ever would have beenpractical in the Middle Ages, for example. They contain more people,distributed more widely around the globe, with more collaboration andspecialization, and more information, making more rapid decisions, thanwas possible even 100 years ago. This is progress.
There have beenseveral key technologies that made modern organizations possible: the printing press,telegraph, telephone, automobile, airplane, typewriter, radio,television, fax machine, and personal computer. These technologies haveenabled information and materials to flow more rapidly, at less cost,across ever more widely distributed organizations. So we can see that technology does make a big difference in organizational productivity. The question is, can technology get us beyond the Collective IQ Barrier?
The advent of the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Webenabled a big leap forward in collective intelligence. These technologies havefurther reduced the cost to distributing and accessing information andinformation products (and even “machines” in the form of software codeand Web services). They have made it possible for collectiveintelligence to function more rapidly, more dynamically, on a wider scale, and at lesscost, than any previous generation of technology.
As a result of evolution of the Web we have seen new organizationalstructures begin to emerge that are less hierarchical, moredistributed, and often more fluid. For example, virtual teams that caninstantly form, collaborate across boundaries, and then dissolve backinto the Webs they come from when their job is finished. Thisprocess is now much easier than it ever was. Numerous hosted Web-basedtools exist to facilitate this: email, groupware, wikis, messageboards, listservers, weblogs, hosted databases, social networks, searchportals, enterprise portals, etc.
But this is still just the cusp of this trend. Even today with thecurrent generation of Web-based tools available to us, we are still notable to effectively tap much more of the potential Collective IQ of ourgroups, teams and communities. How do we get from where we are today(the whole is dumber than the sum of its parts) to where we want to bein the future (the whole is smarter than the sum of its parts)?
The Future of Productivity
The diagram below illustrates how I think about the past, present and future of productivity. In my view, from the advent of PC’s onwards we have seen a rapid growth in individual and group productivity, enabling people to work with larger sets of information, in larger groups. But this will not last — soon as we reach a critical level of information and groups of ever larger size, productivity will start to decline again, unless new technologies and tools emerge to enable us to cope with these increases in scale and complexity. You can read more about this diagram here.
In the last 20 years the amount of information that knowledgeworkers (and even consumers) have to deal with on a daily basis has mushroomed by a factor of almost 10orders of magnitude and it will continue like this for several moredecades. But our information tools — and particular our tools forcommunication, collaboration, community, commerce and knowledgemanagement — have not advanced nearly as quickly. As a result thetools that we are using today to manage our information andinteractions are grossly inadequate for the task at hand: They were simply not designed tohandle the tremendous volumes of distributed information, and the rate of change ofinformation, that we are witnessing today.
Case in point: Email. Email was never designed for what it is beingused for today. Email was a simple interpersonal notification andmessaging tool and essentially that is what it is good for. But todaymost of us use our email as a kind of database, search engine,collaboration tool, knowledge management tool, project management tool,community tool, commerce tool, content distribution tool, etc. Emailwasn’t designed for these functions and it really isn’t very productive whenapplied to them.
For groups the email problem is even worse than it is for individuals –not only is everyone’s individual email productivity declining anyway,but collectively as groupsize increases (and thus group information size increases as well),there is a multiplier effect that further reduces everyone’semail productivity in inverse proportion to the size of the group.Email becomes increasingly unproductive as group size and informationsize increase.
This is not just true of email, however, it’s true of almost all theinformation tools we use today: Search engines, wikis, groupware,social networks, etc. They all suffer from this fundamental problem.Productivity breaks down with scale — and the problem is exponentially worse than it is for individuals in groups and organizations. But scale is increasing incessantly — that is a fact — and it will continue to do so for decades at least. Unless something is done about this we will simply be completely buried in our own information within about a decade.
The Semantic Web
I think the Semantic Web is a critical enabling technology that will help us get through this transition. It willenable the next big leap in productivity and collective intelligence.It may even be the technology that enables humans to flip the ratio so thatfor the first time in human history, larger groups of people canfunction more productively and intelligently than smaller groups. Itall comes down to enabling individuals and groups to maintain (andultimately improve) their productivity in theface of the continuing explosion in information and social complexitythat they areexperiencing.
The Semantic Web provides a richer underlying fabric for expressing,sharing, and connecting information. Essentially it provides a betterway to transform information into useful knowledge, and to share andcollaborate with it. It essentially upgrades the medium — in this case the Web and any other data that is connected to the Web — that we use for our information today.
By enriching the medium we can inturn enable new leaps in how applications, people, groups andorganizations can function. This has happened many times before in thehistory of technology. The printing press is one example. The Web is a more recent one. The Web enriched themedium (documents) with HTML and a new transport mechanism, HTTP, forsharing it. This brought about one of the largest leaps in humancollective cognition and productivity in history. But HTML really onlydescribes formatting and links. XML came next, to start to provide away to enrich the medium with information about structure –the parts of documents. The Semantic Web takes this one step further –it provides a way to enrich the medium with information about the meaning of the structure — what are those parts, what do various links actually mean?
Essentially the Semantic Web provides a means to abstract andexternalize human knowledge about information — previously the meaningof information lived only in our heads, and perhaps in certainspecially-written software applications that were coded to understandcertain types of data. The Semantic Web will disrupt this situation by providingopen-standards for encoding this meaning right into the medium itself.Any application that can speak the open-standards of the Semantic Webcan then begin to correctly interpret the meaning of information, andtreat it accordingly, without having to be specifically coded tounderstand each type of data it might encounter.
This is analogous to the benefit of HTML. Before HTML everyapplication had to be specifically coded to each different documentformat in order to display it. After HTML applications could all juststandardize on a single way to define the formats of differentdocuments. Suddenly a huge new landscape of information becameaccessible both to applications and to the people who used them.The Semantic Web does something similar: It provides a way to makethe data itself “smarter” so that applications don’t have to know somuch to correctly interpret it. Any data structure — a document or adata record of any kind — that can be marked up with HTML to define its formatting, can also be marked up with RDFand OWL (the languages of the Semantic Web) to define its meaning.
Once semantic metadata is added, the document can not only bedisplayed properly by any application (thanks to HTML and XML), but itcan also be correctly understood by that application. For example theapplication can understand what kind of document it is, what it isabout, what the parts are, how the document relates to other things,and what particular data fields and values mean and how they map todata fields and values in other data records around the Web.
The Semantic Web enriches information with knowledge about what thatinformation means, what it is for, and how it relates to other things.With this in hand applications can go far beyond the limitations ofkeyword search, text processing, and brittle tabular data structures.Applications can start to do a much better job of finding, organizing,filtering, integrating, and making sense of ever larger and morecomplex distributed data sets around the Web.
Another great benefit ofthe Semantic Web is that this additional metadata can be added in atotally distributed fashion. The publisher of a document can add theirown metadata and other parties can then annotate that with their ownmetadata. Even HTML doesn’t enable that level of cooperative markup (exceptperhaps in wikis). It takes a distributed solution to keep up with ahighly distributed problem (the Web). The Semantic Web is just such adistributed solution.
The Semantic Web will enrich information and this in turn will enable people, groups and applications to work with information more productively. In particular groups and organizations will benefit the most because that is where the problems of information overload and complexity are the worst. Individuals at least know how they organize their own information so they can do a reasonably good job of managing their own data. But groups are another story — because people don’t necessarily know how others in their group organize their information. Finding what you need in other people’s information is much harder than finding it in your own.
Where the Semantic Web can help with this is by providing a richer fabric for knowledge management. Information can be connected to an underlying ontology that defines not only the types of information available, but also the meaning and relationships between different tags or subject categories, and even the concepts that occur in the information itself. This makes organizing and finding group knowledge easier. In fact, eventually the hope is that people and groups will not have to organize their information manually anymore — it will happen in an almost fully-automatic fashion. The Semantic Web provides the necessary frameworks for making this possible.
But even with the Semantic Web in place and widely adopted, moreinnovation on top of it will be necessary before we can truly breakpast the Collective IQ Barrier such that organizations can in practiceachieve exponential increases in Collective IQ. Human beings are only able to cope with a few chunks ofinformation at a given moment, and our memories and ability to processcomplex data sets are limited. When group size and data size growbeyond certain limits, we simply cannot cope, we become overloaded andjammed, even with rich Semantic Web content at our disposal.
Social Filtering and Social Networking — Collective Cognition
Ultimately, to remain productive in the face of such complexity wewill need help. Often humans in roles that require them to cope with large scales of information, relationships andcomplexity hire assistants, but not all of us can affordto do that, and in some cases even assistants are not able to keep upwith the complexity that has to be managed.
Social networking andsocial filtering are two ways to expand the number of “assistants” weeach have access to, while also reducing the price of harnessing the collective intelligence of those assistants to just about nothing. Essentially these methodologies enable people toleverage the combined intelligence and attention of large communitiesof like-minded people who contribute their knowledge and expertise for free. It’s a collective tit-for-tat form of altruism.
For example, Diggis a community that discovers the most interesting news articles. Itdoes this by enabling thousands of people to submit articles and voteon them. What Digg adds are a few clever algorithms on top of this for rankingarticles such that the most active ones bubble up to the top. It’s notunlike a stock market trader’s terminal, but for a completely differentclass of data. This is a great example of social filtering.
Anothergood example are prediction markets, where groups of people vote onwhat stock or movie or politician is likely to win — in some cases bybuying virtual stock in them — as a means to predict the future. Ithas been shown that prediction markets do a pretty good job of makingaccurate predictions in fact. In addition expertise referral serviceshelp people get answers to questions from communities of experts. Theseservices have been around in one form or another for decades and haverecently come back into vogue with services like Yahoo Answers. Amazonhas also taken a stab at this with their Amazon Mechanical Turk, whichenables “programs” to be constructed in which people perform the work.
I think social networking, social filtering, prediction markets,expertise referral networks, and collective collaboration are extremelyvaluable. By leveraging other people individuals and groups can stayahead of complexity and can also get the benefit of wide-areacollective cognition. These approaches to collective cognition arebeginning to filter into the processes of organizations and othercommunities. For example, there is recent interest in applying socialnetworking to niche communities and even enterprises.
The Semantic Webwill enrich all of these activities — making social networks andsocial filtering more productive. It’s not an either/or choice — thesetechnologies are extremely compatible in fact. By leveraging acommunity to tag, classify and organize content, for example, themeaning of that content can be collectively enriched. This is alreadyhappening in a primitive way in many social media services. TheSemantic Web will simply provide a richer framework for doing this.
The combination of the Semantic Web with emerging social networkingand social filtering will enable something greater than either on it’sown. Together, together these two technologies will enable much smarter groups, social networks, communities and organizations. But this still will not get us all the way past the Collective IQBarrier. It may get us close the threshold though. To cross thethreshold we will need to enable an even more powerful form ofcollective cognition.
The Agent Web
To cope with the enormous future scale andcomplexity of the Web, desktop and enterprise, each individual and group willreally need not just a single assistant, or even a community of humanassistants working on common information (a social filtering communityfor example), they will need thousands or millions of assistants working specificallyfor them. This really only becomes affordable and feasible if we canvirtualize what an “assistant” is.
Human assistants are at the top ofthe intelligence pyramid — they are extremely smart and powerful, and they are expensive — they should not beused for simple tasks like sorting content, that’s just a waste oftheir capabilities. It would be like using a supercomputer array tospellcheck a document. Instead, we need to free humans up to do thereally high-value information tasks, and find a way to farm out thelow-value, rote tasks to software. Software is cheap or even free and it can be replicated as much asneeded in order to parallelize. A virtual army of intelligent agents is less expensive than a single human assistant, and much more suited to sifting through millions of Web pages every day.
But where will these future intelligent agents get their intelligence? In past attempts at artificial intelligence, researchers tried to buildgigantic expert systems that could reason as well as a small child forexample. These attempts met with varying degrees of success, but theyall had one thing in common: They were monolithic applications.
I believe that that future intelligent agents should be simple. They should not be advanced AI programs or expert systems. They should be capable of a few simple behaviors, the most important of which is to reason against sets of rules and semantic data. The basic logic necessary for reasoning is not enormous and does not require any AI — it’s just the ability to follow logical rules and perhaps do set operations. They should be lightweight and highly mobile. Insteadof vast monolithic AI, I am talking about vast numbers of very simpleagents that working together can do emergent, intelligent operations en masse.
For example search — you might deploy a thousand agents to search all the sites about Italy for recipes and then assemble those results into a database instantaneously. Or you might dispatch a thousand or more agents to watch for a job that matches your skills and goals across hundreds of thousands or millions of Websites. They could watch and wait until jobs that matched your criteria appeared, and then they could negotiate amongst themselves to determine which of the possible jobs they found were good enough to show you. Another scenario might be commerce — you could dispatch agents to find you the best deal on a vacation package, and they could even negotiate an optimal itinerary and price for you. All you would have to do is choose between a few finalist vacation packages and make the payment. This could be a big timesaver.
The above examples illustrate how agents might help an individual, but how might they help a group or organization? Well for one thing agents could continuously organize and re-organize information for a group. They could also broker social interactions — for example, by connecting people to other people with matching needs or interests, or by helping people find experts who could answer their questions. One of the biggest obstacles to getting past the Collective IQ Barrier is simply that people cannot keep track of more than a few social relationships and information sources at aany given time — but with an army of agents helping them, individuals might be able to cope with more relationships and data sources at once; the agents would act as their filters, deciding what to let through and how much priority to give it. Agents can also help to make recommendations, and to learn to facilitate and even automate various processes such as finding a time to meet, or polling to make a decision, or escalating an issue up or down the chain of command until it is resolved.
To make intelligent agents useful, they will need access to domain expertise. But the agents themselves will not contain any knowledge or intelligence of their own. The knowledge will exist outside on the Semantic Web, and so will the intelligence. Their intelligence, like their knowledge, will be externalized and virtualized in the form of axioms or rules that will exist out on the Web just like web pages.
For example, a set of axioms about travel could be published to the Web in the form of a document that formally defined them. Any agent that needed to process travel-related content could reference these axioms in order to reason intelligently about travel in the same way that it might reference an ontology about travel in order to interpret travel data structures. The application would not have to be specifically coded to know about travel — it could be a generic simple agent — but whenever it encountered travel-related content it could call up the axioms about travel from the location on the Web where they were hosted, and suddenly it could reason like an expert travel agent. What’s great about this is that simple generic agents would be able to call up domain expertise on an as-needed basis for just about any domain they might encounter. Intelligence — the heuristics, algorithms and axioms that comprise expertise, would be as accessible as knowledge — the data and connections between ideas and information on the Web.
The axioms themselves would be created by human experts in various domains, and in some cases they might even be created or modified by agents as they learned from experience. These axioms might be provided for free as a public service, or as fee-based web-services via API’s that only paying agents could access.
The key is that model is extremely scaleable — millions or billions of axioms could be created, maintained, hosted, accessed, and evolved in a totally decentralized and parallel manner by thousands or even hundreds of thousands of experts all around the Web. Instead of a few monolithic expert systems, the Web as a whole would become a giant distributed system of experts. There might be varying degrees of quality among competing axiom-sets available for any particular domain, and perhaps a ratings system could help to filter them over time. Perhaps a sort of natural selection of axioms might take place as humans and applications rated the end-results of reasoning using particular sets of axioms, and then fed these ratings back to the sources of this expertise, causing them to get more or less attention from other agents in the future. This process would be quite similar to the human-level forces of intellectual natural-selection at work in fields of study where peer-review and competition help to filter and rank ideas and their proponents.
What I have been describing is the virtualization of intelligence — making intelligence and expertise something that can be “published” to the Web and shared just like knowledge, just like an ontology, a document, a database, or a Web page. This is one of the long-term goals of the Semantic Web and it’s already starting now via new languages, such as SWRL, that are being proposed for defining and publishing axioms or rules to the Web. For example, “a non-biologicalparent of a person is their step-parent” is asimple axiom. Another axiom might be, “A child of a sibling of your parent is your cousin.” Using such axioms, an agent could make inferences and do simple reasoning about social relationships for example.
SWRL and other proposed rules languages provide potentialopen-standards for defining rules and publishing them to the Web sothat other applications can use them. By combining these rules withrich semantic data, applications can start to do intelligent things,without actually containing any of the intelligence themselves. The intelligence– the rules and data — can live “out there” on the Web, outside the code of various applications.
All theapplications have to know how to do is find relevant rules, interpret them, and apply them. Even the reasoning that may be necessary can be virtualized into remotely accessible Web services so applications don’t even have to do that part themselves (although many may simply include open-source reasoners in the same way that they include open-source databases or search engines today).
In other words, just as HTML enables any app to process and formatany document on the Web, SWRL + RDF/OWL may someday enable any application to reasonabout what the document discusses. Reasoning is the last frontier. Byvirtualizing reasoning — the axioms that experts use to reason aboutdomains — we can really begin to store the building blocks of humanintelligence and expertise on the Web in a universally-accessibleformat. This to me is when the actual “Intelligent Web” (what I callWeb 4.0) will emerge.
The value of this for groups and organizations is that they can start to distill their intelligence from individuals that comprise them into a more permanent and openly accessible form — axioms that live on the Web and can be accessed by everyone. For example, a technical support team for a product learns many facts and procedures related to their product over time. Currently this learning is stored as knowledge in some kind of tech support knowledgebase. But the expertise for how to find and apply this knowledge still resides mainly in the brains of the people who comprise the team itself.
The Semantic Web provides ways to enrich the knowledgebase as well as to start representing and saving the expertise that the people themselves hold in their heads, in the form of sets of axioms and procedures. By storing not just the knowledge but also the expertise about the product, the humans on the team don’t have to work as hard to solve problems — agents can actually start to reason about problems and suggest solutions based on past learning embodied in the common set of axioms. Of course this is easier said than done — but the technology at least exists in nascent form today. In a decade or more it will start to be practical to apply it.
Someday in the not-too-distant-future groups will be able toleverage hundreds or thousands of simple intelligent agents. Theseagents will work for them 24/7 to scour the Web, the desktop, theenterprise, and other services and social networks they are related to. They will help both the individuals as well as the collectives as-a-whole. They willbe our virtual digital assistants, always alert and looking for thingsthat matter to us, finding patterns, learning on our behalf, reasoningintelligently, organizing our information, and then filtering it,visualizing it, summarizing it, and making recommendations to us sothat we can see the Big Picture, drill in wherever we wish, and makedecisions more productively.
Essentially these agents will give groups something like their own brains. Today the only brains in a group reside in the skulls of the people themselves. But in the future perhaps we will see these technologies enable groups to evolve their own meta-level intelligences: systems of agents reasoning on group expertise and knowledge.
This will be a fundamental leap to a new order of collective intelligence. For the first time groups will literally have minds of their own, minds that transcend the mere sum of the individual human minds that comprise their human, living facets. I call these systems “Group Minds” and I think they are definitely coming. In fact there has been quite a bit of research on the subject of facilitating group collaboration with agents, for example, in government agencies such as DARPA and the military, where finding ways to help groups think more intelligently is often a matter of life and death.
The big win from a future in which individuals and groups canleverage large communities of intelligent agents is that they will bebetter able to keep up with the explosive growth of information complexity andsocial complexity. As the saying goes, “it takes a village.” There is just too much information, and too many relationships, changing too fast and this is only going to get more intense in years to come. The only way to cope with such a distributed problem is a distributed solution.
Perhaps by 2030 it will not be uncommon for Individuals and groups to maintain largenumbers of virtual assistants — agents that will help them keep abreast of themassively distributed, always growing and shifting information and sociallandscapes. When you really think about this, how else could we eversolve this? This is really the only practical long-term solution. But today it is still a bit of a pipedream; we’re not there yet. The key however is that we are closer than we’ve ever been before.
The Semantic Web provides the key enabling technology for all ofthis to happen someday in the future. By enriching the content of theWeb it first paves the way to a generation of smarter applications andmore productive individuals, groups and organizations.
The next majorleap will be when we begin to virtualize reasoning in the form ofaxioms that become part of the Semantic Web. This will enable a newgeneration of applications that can reason across information andservices. This will ultimately lead to intelligent agents that will be able to assist individuals,groups, social networks, communities, organizations and marketplaces sothat they can remain productive in the fact of the astonishinginformation and social network complexity in our future.
By adding more knowledge into our information, the Semantic Webmakes it possible for applications (and people) to use information moreproductively. By adding more intelligence between people, information,and applications, the Semantic Web will also enable people andapplications to become smarter. In the future, these more-intelligentapps will facilitate higher levels of individual and collectivecognition by functioning as virtual intelligent assistants forindividuals and groups (as well as for online services).
Once we begin to virtualize not just knowledge (semantics) but alsointelligence (axioms) we will start to build Group Minds — groups that have primitive minds of their own. When we reach this point we will finally enable organizations to breakpast the Collective IQ Barrier: Organizations will start to becomesmarter than the sum of their parts. The intelligence of anorganization will not just be from its people, it will also come fromits applications. The number of intelligent applications in anorganization may outnumber the people by 1000 to 1, effectivelyamplifying each individual’s intelligence as well as the collectiveintelligence of the group.
Because software agents work all the time,can self-replicate when necessary, and are extremely fast and precise,they are ideally-suited to sifting in parallel through the millions or billions ofdata records on the Web, day in and day out. Humans and even groups ofhumans will never be able to do this as well. And that’s not what theyshould be doing! They are far too intelligent for that kind of work.Humans should be at the top of the pyramid, making the decisions,innovating, learning, and navigating.
When we finally reach this stage where networks of humans and smartapplications are able to work together intelligently for common goals,I believe we will witness a real change in the way organizations arestructured. In Group Minds, hierarchy will not be as necessary — the maximum effectivesize of a human Group Mind will be perhaps in the thousands or even themillions instead of around 50 people. As a result the shape of organizations in thefuture will be extremely fluid, and most organizations will be flat orcontinually shifting networks. For more on this kind of organization,read about virtual teams and networking, such as these books (by friends of mine who taught me everything I know about network-organization paradigms.)
I would also like to note that I am not proposing “strong AI” — a vision in which we someday makeartificial intelligences that are as or more intelligent thanindividual humans. I don’t think intelligent agents will individually be very intelligent. It will only be in vast communities of agents that intelligence will start to emerge. Agents are analogous to the neurons in the human brain — they really aren’t very powerful on their own.
I’m also not proposing that Group Minds will beas or more intelligent as the individual humans in groups anytime soon. I don’t think thatis likely in our lifetimes. The cognitive capabilities of an adult human are the product of millions of years of evolution. Even in the accelerated medium of the Web where evolution can take place much faster in silico, it may still take decades or even centuries to evolve AI that rivals the human mind (and I doubt such AI will ever be truly conscious, which means that humans, with their inborn natural consciousness, may always play a special and exclusive role in the world to come, but that is the subject of a different essay). But even if they will not be as intelligent as individual humans, Ido think that Group Minds, facilitated by masses of slightly intelligent agents and humans working in concert, can goa long way in helping individuals and groups become more productive.
It’s important to note that the future I am describing is notscience-fiction, but it also will not happen overnight. It will take atleast several decades, if not longer. But with the seeminglyexponential rate of change of innovation, we may make very large stepsin this direction very soon. It is going to be an exciting lifetime forall of us.
Nice article in Scientific American about Gordon Bell’s work at Microsoft Research on the MyLifeBits project. MyLifeBits provides one perspective on the not-too-far-off future in which all our information, and even some of our memories and experiences, are recorded and made available to us (and possibly to others) for posterity. This is a good application of the Semantic Web — additional semantics within the dataset would provide many more dimensions to visualize, explore and search within, which would help to make the content more accessible and grokkable.
Google’s Larry Page recently gave a talk to the AAAS about how Google is looking towards a future in which they hope to implement AI on a massive scale. Larry’s idea is that intelligence is a function of massive computation, not of “fancy whiteboard algorithms.” In other words, in his conception the brain doesn’t do anything very sophisticated, it just does a lot of massively parallel number crunching. Each processor and its program is relatively “dumb” but from the combined power of all of them working together “intelligent” behaviors emerge.
Larry’s view is, in my opinion, an oversimplification that will not lead to actual AI. It’s certainly correct that some activities that we call “intelligent” can be reduced to massively parallel simple array operations. Neural networks have shown that this is possible — they excel at low level tasks like pattern learning and pattern recognition for example. But neural networks have not proved capable of higher level cognitive tasks like mathematical logic, planning, or reasoning. Neural nets are theoretically computationally equivalent to Turing Machines, but nobody (to my knowledge) has ever succeeded in building a neural net that can in practice even do what a typical PC can do today — which is still a long way short of true AI!
Somehow our brains are capable of basic computation, pattern detection and learning, simple reasoning, and advanced cognitive processes like innovation and creativity, and more. I don’t think that this richness is reducible to massively parallel supercomputing, or even a vast neural net architecture. The software — the higher level cognitive algorithms and heuristics that the brain “runs” — also matter. Some of these may be hard-coded into the brain itself, while others may evolve by trial-and-error, or be programmed or taught to it socially through the process of education (which takes many years at the least).
Larry’s view is attractive but decades of neuroscience and cognitive science have shown conclusively that the brain is not nearly as simple as we would like it to be. In fact the human brain is far more sophisticated than any computer we know of today, even though we can think of it in simple terms. It’s a highly sophisticated system comprised of simple parts — and actually, the jury is still out on exactly how simple the parts really are — much of the computation in the brain may be sub-neuronal, meaning that the brain may actually a much much more complex system than we think.
Perhaps the Web as a whole is the closest analogue we have today for the brain — with millions of nodes and connections. But today the Web is still quite a bit smaller and simpler than a human brain. The brain is also highly decentralized and it is doubtful than any centralized service could truly match its capabilities. We’re not talking about a few hundred thousand linux boxes — we’re talking about hundreds of billions of parallel distributed computing elements to model all the neurons in a brain, and this number gets into the trillions if we want to model all the connections. The Web is not this big, and neither is Google.
One reader who commented on Larry’s talk made an excellent point on what this missing piece may be: “Intelligence is in the connections, not the bits.”The point is that most of the computation in the brain actually takesplace via the connections between neurons, regions, and perhapsprocesses. This writer also made some good points about quantumcomputation and how the brain may make use of it, a view that forexample Roger Penrose and others have spent a good deal of time on.There is some evidence that brain may make use of microtubules andquantum-level computing. Quantum computing is inherently about fields,correlations and nonlocality. In other words the connections in thebrain may exist on a quantum level, not just a neurological level.
Whether quantum computation is the key or not still remains to bedetermined. But regardless, essentially, Larry’s approach is equivalentto just aiming a massively parallel supercomputer at the Web and hopingthat will do the trick. Larry mentions for example that if allknowledge exists on the Web you should be able to enter a query and geta perfect answer. In his view, intelligence is basically just search ona grand scale. All answers exist on the Web, and the task is just tomatch questions to the right answers. But wait? Is that all thatintelligence does? Is Larry’s view too much of an oversimplification?Intelligence is not just about learning and recall, it’s also aboutreasoning and creativity. Reasoning is not just search. It’s unclearhow Larry’s approach would address that.
In my own opinion, for global-scale AI to really emerge the Web has toBE the computer. The computation has to happen IN the Web, betweensites and along connections — rather than from outside the system. Ithink that is how intelligence will ultimately emerge on a Web-widescale. Instead of some Google Godhead implementing AI from afar for thewhole Web, I think it is more likely that every site, app and person onthe Web will help to implement it. It will be much more of a hybridsystem that combines decentralized human and machine intelligences andtheir interactions along data connections and social relationships. Ithink this may emerge from a future evolution of the Web that providesfor much richer semantics on every piece of data and hyperlink on theWeb, and for decentralized learning, search, and reasoning to takeplace within every node on the Web. I think the Semantic Web is anecessary technology for this to happen, but it’s only the first step.More will need to happen on top of it for this vision to reallymaterialize.
My view is more of an “agent metaphor” for intelligence — perhaps itis similar to Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind ideas. I think that mindsare more like communities than we presently think. Even in our ownindividual minds for example we experience competing thoughts, multiplethreads, and a kind of internal ecology and natural selection of ideas.These are not low-level processes — they are more like agents — theyare actually each somewhat “intelligent” on their own, they seem to besomewhat autonomous, and they interact in intelligent almost socialways.
Ideas seem to be actors, not just passive data points — they arecompeting for resources and survival in a complex ecology that existsboth within our individual minds and between them in socialrelationships and communities. As the theory of memetics proposes,ideas can even transport themselves through language, culture, andsocial interactions in order to reproduce and evolve from mind to mind.It is an illusion to think that there is some central self or “I” thatcontrols the process (that is just another agent in the community infact, perhaps one with a kind of reporting and selection role).
I’m not sure the complex social dynamics of these communities ofintelligence can really be modeled by a search engine metaphor. Thereis a lot more going on than just search. As well as communication andreasoning between different processes, there may in fact be feedbackacross levels from the top-down as well as the from the bottom-up.Larry is essentially proposing that intelligence is a purely bottom-upemergent process that can be reduced to search in the ideal, simplestcase. I disagree. I think there is so much feedback in every directionthat medium and the content really cannot be separated. The thoughtsthat take place in the brain ultimately feedback down to the neuralwetware itself, changing the states of neurons and connections –computation flows back down from the top, it doesn’t only flow up fromthe bottom. Any computing system that doesn’t include this kind offeedback in its basic architecture will not be able to implement trueAI.
In short, Google is not the right architecture to truly build a globalbrain on. But it could be a useful tool for search andquestions-and-answers in the future, if they can somehow keep up withthe growth and complexity of the Web.
A New York Times article came out today about the Semantic Web — in which I was quoted, speaking about my company Radar Networks. Here’s an excerpt:
Referred to as Web 3.0, the effort is in its infancy, and the very
idea has given rise to skeptics who have called it an unobtainable
vision. But the underlying technologies are rapidly gaining adherents,
at big companies like I.B.M. and Google
as well as small ones. Their projects often center on simple, practical
uses, from producing vacation recommendations to predicting the next
But in the future, more powerful systems could act as
personal advisers in areas as diverse as financial planning, with an
intelligent system mapping out a retirement plan for a couple, for
instance, or educational consulting, with the Web helping a high school
student identify the right college.
The projects aimed at
creating Web 3.0 all take advantage of increasingly powerful computers
that can quickly and completely scour the Web.
“I call it the
World Wide Database,” said Nova Spivack, the founder of a start-up firm
whose technology detects relationships between nuggets of information
mining the World Wide Web. “We are going from a Web of connected
documents to a Web of connected data.”
Web 2.0, which describes
the ability to seamlessly connect applications (like geographical
mapping) and services (like photo-sharing) over the Internet, has in
recent months become the focus of dot-com-style hype in Silicon Valley.
But commercial interest in Web 3.0 — or the “semantic Web,” for the
idea of adding meaning — is only now emerging.
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Many years ago, in the late 1980s, while I was still a college student, I visited my late grandfather, Peter F. Drucker, at his home in Claremont, California. He lived near the campus of Claremont College where he was a professor emeritus. On that particular day, I handed him a manuscript of a book I was trying to write, entitled, “Minding the Planet” about how the Internet would enable the evolution of higher forms of collective intelligence.
My grandfather read my manuscript and later that afternoon we sat together on the outside back porch and he said to me, “One thing is certain: Someday, you will write this book.” We both knew that the manuscript I had handed him was not that book, a fact that was later verified when I tried to get it published. I gave up for a while and focused on college, where I was studying philosophy with a focus on artificial intelligence. And soon I started working in the fields of artificial intelligence and supercomputing at companies like Kurzweil, Thinking Machines, and Individual.
A few years later, I co-founded one of the early Web companies, EarthWeb, where among other things we built many of the first large commercial Websites and later helped to pioneer Java by creating several large knowledge-sharing communities for software developers. Along the way I continued to think about collective intelligence. EarthWeb and the first wave of the Web came and went. But this interest and vision continued to grow. In 2000 I started researching the necessary technologies to begin building a more intelligent Web. And eventually that led me to start my present company, Radar Networks, where we are now focused on enabling the next-generation of collective intelligence on the Web, using the new technologies of the Semantic Web.
But ever since that day on the porch with my grandfather, I remembered what he said: “Someday, you will write this book.” I’ve tried many times since then to write it. But it never came out the way I had hoped. So I tried again. Eventually I let go of the book form and created this weblog instead. And as many of my readers know, I’ve continued to write here about my observations and evolving understanding of this idea over the years. This article is my latest installment, and I think it’s the first one that meets my own standards for what I really wanted to communicate. And so I dedicate this article to my grandfather, who inspired me to keep writing this, and who gave me his prediction that I would one day complete it.
This is an article about a new generation of technology that is sometimes called the Semantic Web, and which could also be called the Intelligent Web, or the global mind. But what is the Semantic Web, and why does it matter, and how does it enable collective intelligence? And where is this all headed? And what is the long-term far future going to be like? Is the global mind just science-fiction? Will a world that has a global mind be good place to live in, or will it be some kind of technological nightmare?
I’ve often joked that it is ironic that a term that contains theword “semantic” has such an ambiguous meaning for most people. Mostpeople just have no idea what this means, they have no context for it,it is not connected to their experience and knowledge. This is aproblem that people who are deeply immersed in the trenches of theSemantic Web have not been able to solve adequately — they have notfound the words to communicate what they can clearly see, what they areworking on, and why it matters for everyone. In this article I havetried, and hopefully succeeded, in providing a detailed introductionand context for the Semantic Web fornon-technical people. But even technical people working in the fieldmay find something of interest here as I piece together the fragmentsinto a Big Picture and a vision for what might be called “Semantic Web2.0.”
I hope the reader will bear with me as Ibounce around across different scales of technology and time, and fromthe extremes of core technology to wild speculation in order to tellthis story. If you are looking for the cold hardscience of it all, this article will provide an understanding but willnot satisfy your need for seeing the actual code; there are otherplaceswhere you can find that level of detail and rigor. But if you want tounderstand what it all really means and what the opportunity and futurelookslike – this may be what you are looking for.
I should also note that all of this is my personal view of what I’vebeen working on,and what it really means to me. It is not necessarily the official viewof the mainstream academic Semantic Web community — although there arecertainly many places where we all agree. But I’m sure that somereaders will certainly disagree or raise objections to some of myassertions, and certainly to my many far-flung speculations about thefuture. I welcome those different perspectives; we’re all trying tomake sense of this and the more of us who do that together, the more wecan collectively start to really understand it. So please feel free towrite your own vision or response, and please let me know so I can linkto it!
So with this Prelude in mind, let’s get started…
The Semantic Web Vision
The Semantic Web is a set of technologies which are designed toenable aparticular vision for the future of the Web – a future in which allknowledge exists on the Web in a format that software applications canunderstand andreason about. By making knowledge more accessible to software, softwarewillessentially become able to understand knowledge, think about knowledge,and createnew knowledge. In other words, software will be able to be moreintelligent –not as intelligent as humans perhaps, but more intelligent than say,your wordprocessor is today.
The dream of making software more intelligent has been around almost as longas software itself. And although it is taking longer to materialize than past experts hadpredicted, progress towards this goal is being steadilymade. At the same time, the shape of this dream is changing. It is becomingmore realistic and pragmatic. The original dream of artificial intelligence wasthat we would all have personal robot assistants doing all the work we don’twant to do for us. That is not the dream of the Semantic Web. Instead, today’sSemantic Web is about facilitating what humans do – it is about helping humansdo things more intelligently. It’s not a vision in which humans do nothing andsoftware does everything.
The Semantic Web vision is not just about helping software become smarter –it is about providing new technologies that enable people, groups,organizations and communities to be smarter.
For example, by providing individuals with tools that learn about what theyknow, and what they want, search can be much more accurate and productive.
Using software that is able to understand and automatically organize largecollections of knowledge, groups, organizations and communities can reachhigher levels of collective intelligence and they can cope with volumes ofinformation that are just too great for individuals or even groups tocomprehend on their own.
Another example: more efficient marketplaces can be enabled by software thatlearns about products, services, vendors, transactions and market trends andunderstands how to connect them together in optimal ways.
In short, the Semantic Web aims to make software smarter, not just for itsown sake, but in order to help make people, and groups of people, smarter. Inthe original Semantic Web vision this fact was under-emphasized, leading to theimpression that Semantic Web was only about automating the world. In fact, it isreally about facilitating the world.
The Semantic Web Opportunity
The Semantic Web is one of the most significant things to happen since theWeb itself. But it will not appear overnight. It will take decades. It willgrow in a bottom-up, grassroots, emergent, community-driven manner just likethe Web itself. Many things have to converge for this trend to really take off.
The core open standards already exist, but the necessary development tools haveto mature, the ontologies that define human knowledge have to come into beingand mature, and most importantly we need a few real “killer apps” to prove thevalue and drive adoption of the Semantic Web paradigm. The first generation ofthe Web had its Mozilla, Netscape, Internet Explorer, and Apache – and it alsohad HTML, HTTP, a bunch of good development tools, and a few killer apps andservices such as Yahoo! and thousands of popular Web sites. The same things arenecessary for the Semantic Web to take off.
And this is where we are today – this all just about to start emerging.There are several companies racing to get this technology, or applications ofit, to market in various forms. Within a year or two you will see mass-consumerSemantic Web products and services hit the market, and within 5 years therewill be at least a few “killer apps” of the Semantic Web. Ten years from nowthe Semantic Web will have spread into many of the most popular sites andapplications on the Web. Within 20 years all content and applications on theInternet will be integrated with the Semantic Web. This is a sea-change. A bigevolutionary step for the Web.
The Semantic Web is an opportunity to redefine, or perhaps to better define,all the content and applications on the Web. That’s a big opportunity. Andwithin it there are many business opportunities and a lot of money to be made. It’snot unlike the opportunity of the first generation of the Web. There areplatform opportunities, content opportunities, commerce opportunities, searchopportunities, community and social networking opportunities, and collaborationopportunities in this space. There is room for a lot of players to compete andat this point the field is wide open.
The Semantic Web is a blue ocean waiting to be explored. And like anyunexplored ocean its also has its share of reefs, pirate islands, hidden treasure, shoals,whirlpools, sea monsters and typhoons. But there are new worlds out there to be discovered,and they exert an irresistible pull on the imagination. This is an excitingfrontier – and also one fraught with hard technical and social challenges thathave yet to be solved. For early ventures in the Semantic Web arena, it’s notgoing to be easy, but the intellectual and technological challenges, and the potentialfinancial rewards, glory, and benefit to society, are worth the effort andrisk. And this is what all great technological revolutions are made of.
Semantic Web 2.0
Some people who have heard the term “Semantic Web” thrown around too muchmay think it is a buzzword, and they are right. But it is not just a buzzword –it actually has some substance behind it. That substance hasn’t emerged yet,but it will. Early critiques of the Semantic Web were right – the early visiondid not leverage concepts such as folksonomy and user-contributed content atall. But that is largely because when the Semantic Web was originally conceivedof Web 2.0 hadn’t happened yet. The early experiments that came out of researchlabs were geeky, to put it lightly, and impractical, but they are already beingfollowed up by more pragmatic, user-friendly approaches.
Today’s Semantic Web – what we might call “Semantic Web 2.0” is a kinder,gentler, more social Semantic Web. It combines the best of the original visionwith what we have all learned about social software and community in the last10 years. Although much of this is still in the lab, it is already starting totrickle out. For example, recently Yahoo! started a pilot of the Semantic Webbehind their food vertical. Other organizations are experimenting with usingSemantic Web technology in parts of their applications, or to store or mapdata. But that’s just the beginning.
The Google Factor
Entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and technologists are increasinglystarting to see these opportunities. Who will be the “Google of the SemanticWeb?” – will it be Google itself? That’s doubtful. Like any entrenchedincumbent, Google is heavily tied to a particular technology and worldview. Andin Google’s case it is anything but semantic today. It would be easier for anupstart to take this position than for Google to port their entireinfrastructure and worldview to a Semantic Web way of thinking.
If it is goingto be Google it will most likely be by acquisition rather than by internal origination. Andthis makes more sense anyway – for Google is in a position where they can just wait and buy the winner,at almost any price, rather than competing in the playing field. One thing to note however is that Google has at least one product offering that shows some potential for becoming a key part of the Semantic Web. I am speaking of Google Base, Google’s open database which is meant to be a registry for structured data so that it can be found in Google search. But Google Base does not conform to or make use of the many open standards of the Semantic Web community. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on your perspective.
Of course the downside of Google waiting to join the mainstream Semantic Web community until after the winner is announced is very large – once there is a winner it may be too late for Google to beat them. Thewinner of the Semantic Web race could very well unseat Google. The strategistsat Google are probably not yet aware of this but as soon as they seesignificant traction around a major Semantic Web play it will become of interestto them.
In any case, I think there won’t be just one winner, there will be severalmajor Semantic Web companies in the future, focusing on different parts of theopportunity. And you can be sure that if Google gets into the game, every majorportal will need to get into this space at some point or risk becomingirrelevant. There will be demand and many acquisitions. In many ways the Semantic Web will not be controlled by just one company — it will be more like a fabric that connects them all together.
Context is King — The Nature ofKnowledge
It should be clear by now that the Semantic Web is all about enablingsoftware (and people) to work with knowledge more intelligently. But what isknowledge? Knowledge is not just information. It is meaningful information – itis information plus context. For example, if I simply say the word “sem” toyou, it is just raw information, it is not knowledge. It probably has nomeaning to you other than a particular set of letters that you recognize and asound you can pronounce, and the mere fact that this information was stated byme.
But if I tell you that “sem” it is the Tibetan word for “mind” then suddenly,“sem means mind in Tibetan” to you. If I further tell you that Tibetans have about as many words for “mind” as Eskimos have for “snow,” this is further meaning. Thisis context, in other words, knowledge, about the sound “sem.” The sound is raw information. When it is given context itbecomes a word, a word that has meaning, a word that is connected to conceptsin your mind – it becomes knowledge. By connecting raw information to context,knowledge is formed.
Once you have acquired a piece of knowledge such as “sem means mind in Tibetan,” you may then also form further knowledgeabout it. For example, you may form the memory, “Nova said that ‘sem means mind in Tibetan.’” You mightalso connect the word “sem” to networks of further concepts you have about Tibet and your understanding of what the word “mind” means.
The mind is the organ of meaning – mind is where meaning is stored,interpreted and created. Meaning is not “out there” in the world, it is purelysubjective, it is purely mental. Meaning is almost equivalent to mind in fact.For the two never occur separately. Each of our individual minds has some way of internally representing meaning — when we read or hear a word that we know, our minds connect that to a network of concepts about it and at that moment it means something to us.
Digging deeper, if you are really curious,or you happen to know Greek, you may also find that a similar sound occurs inthe Greek word, sēmantikós – which means “having meaning” and in turn is the root of the English word “semantic”which means “pertaining to or arising from meaning.” That’s an odd coincidence!“Sem” occurs in Tibetan word for mind, and the English and Greek words that allrelate to the concepts of “meaning” and “mind.” Even stranger is that not only do these words have a similar sound, they have a similar meaning.
With all this knowledge at yourdisposal, when you then see the term “Semantic Web” you may be able to inferthat it has something to do with adding “meaning” to the Web. However, if youwere a Tibetan, perhaps you might instead think the term had something to dowith adding “mind” to the Web. In either case you would be right!
Discovering New Connections
We’ve discovered a new connection — namely that there is an implicit connectionbetween “sem” in Greek, English and Tibetan: they all relate to meaning andmind. It’s not a direct, explicit connection – it’s not evident unless you digfor it. But it’s a useful tidbit of knowledge once it’s found. Unlike the direct migration of the sound “sem” from Greek to English,there may not have ever been a direct transfer of this sound from Greek toSanskrit to Tibetan. But in a strange and unexpected way, they are all connected. This connectionwasn’t necessarily explicitly stated by anyone before, but was uncovered byexploring our network of concepts and making inferences.
The sequence of thought about “sem”above is quite similar to kind of intellectual reasoning and discovery that theactual Semantic Web seeks to enable software to do automatically. How is this kind of reasoning and discovery enabled? The Semantic Web providesa set of technologies for formally defining the context of information. Just asthe Web relies on a standard formal specification for “marking up” informationwith formatting codes that enable any applications that understand those codesto format the information in the same way, the Semantic Web relies on newstandards for “marking up” information with statements about its context – itsmeaning – that enable any applications to understand, and reason about, the meaning of those statements in the same way.
By applying semantic reasoning agents to large collections of semantically enhanced content, all sorts of new connections may be inferred, leading to new knowledge, unexpected discoveries and useful additional context around content. This kind of reasoning and discovery is already taking place in fields from drug discovery and medical research, to homeland security and intelligence. The Semantic Web is not the only way to do this — but it certainly will improve the process dramatically. And of course, with this improvement will come new questions about how to assess and explain how various inferences were made, and how to protect privacy as our inferencing capabilities begin to extend across ever more sources of public and private data. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but others are working on them and I have confidence that solutions will be arrived at over time.
By marking up information with metadata that formally codifies its context, we can make the data itself “smarter.” The data becomes self-describing. When you get a piece of data you also get the necessary metadata for understanding it. For example, if I sent you a document containing the word “sem” in it, I could add markup around that word indicating that it is the word for “mind” in the Tibetan language.
Similarly, a document containing mentions of “Radar Networks” could contain metadata indicating that “Radar Networks” is an Internet company, not a product or a type of radar technology. A document about a person could contain semantic markup indicating that they are residents of a certain city, experts on Italian cooking, and members of a certain profession. All of this could be encoded as metadata in a form that software could easily understand. The data carries more information about its own meaning.
The alternative to smart data would be for software to actually read and understand natural language as well as humans. But that’s really hard. To correctly interpret raw natural language, software would have to be developed that knew as much as a human being. But think about how much teaching and learning is required to raise a human being to the point where they can read at an adult level. It is likely that similar training would be necessary to build software that could do that. So far that goal has not been achieved, although some attempts have been made. While decent progress in natural language understanding has been made, most software that can do this is limited around particular vertical domains, and it’s brittle — it doesn’t do a good job of making sense of terms and forms of speech that it wasn’t trained to parse and make sense of.
Instead of trying to make software a million times smarter than it is today, it is much easier to just encode more metadata about what our information means. That turns out to be less work in the end. And there’s an added benefit to this approach — the meaning exists with the data and travels with it. It is independent of any one software program — all software can access it. And because the meaning of information is stored with the information itself, rather than in the software, the software doesn’t have to be enormous to be smart. It just has to know the basic language for interpreting the semantic metadata it finds on the information it works with.
Smart data enables relatively dumb software to be smarter with less work. That’s an immediate benefit. And in the long-term as software actually gets smarter, smart data will make it easier for it to start learning and exploring on its own. So it’s a win-win approach. Start with by adding semantic metadata to data, end up with smarter software.
Making Statements About the World
Metadata comes down to making statements about the world in a manner that machines, and perhaps even humans, can understand unambiguously. The same piece of metadata should be interpreted in the same way by different applications and readers.
There are many kinds of statementsthat can be made about information to provide it with context. For example, youcan state a definition such as “person” means “a human being or a legalentity.” You can state an assertion such as “Sue is a human being.” You canstate a rule such that “if x is a human being, then x is a person.”
From thesestatements it can then be inferred that “Sue is a person.” This inference is soobvious to you and me that it seems trivial, but most software today cannot dothis. It doesn’t know what a person is, let alone what a name is. But ifsoftware could do this, then it could for example, automatically organizedocuments by the people they are related to, or discover connections betweenpeople who were mentioned in a set of documents, or it could find documentsabout people who were related to particular topics, or it could give you a listof all the people mentioned in a set of documents, or all the documents relatedto a person.
Of course this is a very basicexample. But imagine if your software didn’t just know about people – it knewabout most of the common concepts that occur in your life. Your software wouldthen be able to help you work with your documents just about as intelligentlyas you are able to do by yourself, or perhaps even more intelligently, becauseyou are just one person and you have limited time and energy but your softwarecould work all the time, and in parallel, to help you.
Examples and Benefits
How could the existence of the Semantic Web and all the semantic metadata that defines it be really useful toeveryone in the near-term?
Well, for example, the problem of email spam would finally be cured:your software would be able to look at a message and know whether it wasmeaningful and/or relevant to you or not.
Similarly, you would never have to file anything by hand again. Your software could atuomate all filing and information organization tasks for you because it would understand your information and your interests. It would be able to figure out when to file something in a single folder, multiple folders, or new ones. It would organize everything — documents, photos, contacts, bookmarks, notes, products, music, video, data records — and it would do it even better and more consistently than you could on your own. Your software wouldn’t just organize stuff, it would turn it into knowledge by connecting it to more context. It could this not just for individuals, but for groups, organizations and entire communities.
Another example: search would bevastly better: you could search conversationally by typing in everyday naturallanguage and you would get precisely what you asked for, or even what youneeded but didn’t know how to ask for correctly, and nothing else. Your searchengine could even ask you questions to help you narrow what you want. You wouldfinally be able to converse with software in ordinary speech and it would understandyou.
The process of discovery would be easier too. You could have software agent that worked as your personal recommendation agent. It would constantly be looking in all the places you read or participate in for things that are relevant to your past, present and potential future interests and needs. It could then alert you in a contextually sensitive way, knowing how to reach you and how urgently to mark things. As you gave it feedback it could learn and do a better job over time.
Going even further with this,semantically-aware software – software that is aware of context, software thatunderstands knowledge – isn’t just for helping you with your information, itcan also help to enrich and facilitate, and even partially automate, yourcommunication and commerce (when you want it to). So for example, your software could help you with your email. It would be able to recommend responses to messages for you, or automate the process. It would be able to enrich your messaging anddiscussions by automatically cross-linking what you are speaking about withrelated messages, discussions, documents, Web sites, subject categories,people, organizations, places, events, etc.
Shopping and marketplaces wouldalso become better – you could search precisely for any kind of product, withany specific attributes, and find it anywhere on the Web, in any store. You could post classified ads and automatically get relevant matches according to your priorities, from all over the Web, or only from specific places and parties that match your criteria for who you trust. You could also easily invent a new custom datastructure for posting classified ads for a new kind of product or service and publishit to the Web in a format that other Web services and applications couldimmediately mine and index without having to necessarily integrate with yoursoftware or data schema directly.
You could publish an entiredatabase to the Web and other applications and services could immediately startto integrate your data with their data, without having to migrate your schemaor their own. You could merge data from different data sources together to create new data sources without having to ever touch or look at an actual database schema.
Bumps on the Road
The above examples illustrate thepotential of the Semantic Web today, but the reality on the ground is that the technology isstill in the early phases of evolution. Even for experienced software engineersand Web developers, it is difficult to apply in practice. The main obstaclesare twofold:
(1) The Tools Problem:
There are very few commercial-gradetools for doing anything with the Semantic Web today – Most of the tools forbuilding semantically-aware applications, or for adding semantics toinformation are still in the research phase and were designed for expertcomputer scientists who specialize in knowledge representation, artificialintelligence, and machine learning.
These tools require a largelearning curve to work with and they don’t generally support large-scaleapplications – they were designed mainly to test theories and frameworks, notto actually apply them. But if the Semantic Web is ever going to becomemainstream, it has to be made easier to apply – it has to be made moreproductive and accessible for ordinary software and content developers.
Fortunately, the tools problem isalready on the verge of being solved. Companies such as my own venture, RadarNetworks, are developing the next generation of tools for building Semantic Webapplications and Semantic Web sites. These tools will hide most of thecomplexity, enabling ordinary mortals to build applications and content thatleverage the power of semantics without needing PhD’s in knowledge representation.
(2) The Ontology Problem:
The Semantic Web providesframeworks for defining systems of formally defined concepts called “ontologies,”that can then be used to connect information to context in an unambiguous way. Withoutontologies, there really can be no semantics. The ontologies ARE the semantics,they define the meanings that are so essential for connecting information tocontext.
But there are still few widely used or standardized ontologies. Andgetting people to agree on common ontologies is not generally easy. Everyonehas their own way of describing things, their own worldview, and let’s face itnobody wants to use somebody else’s worldview instead of their own.Furthermore, the world is very complex and to adequately describe all the knowledgethat comprises what is thought of as “common sense” would require a very largeontology (and in fact, such an ontology exists – it’s called Cyc and it is solarge and complex that only experts can really use it today).
Even to describe the knowledge ofjust a single vertical domain, such as medicine, is extremely challenging. Tomake matters worse, the tools for authoring ontologies are still very hard touse – one has to understand the OWL language and difficult, buggy ontologyauthoring tools in order to use them. Domain experts who are non-technical andnot trained in formal reasoning or knowledge representation may find theprocess of designing ontologies frustrating using current tools. What is needed are commercial quality tools for buildingontologies that hide the underlying complexity so that people can just pourtheir knowledge into them as easily as they speak. That’s still a ways off, butnot far off. Perhaps ten years at the most.
Of course the difficulty ofdefining ontologies would be irrelevant if the necessary ontologies alreadyexisted. Perhaps experts could define them and then everyone else could justuse them? There are numerous ontologies already in existence, both on thegeneral level as well as about specific verticals. However in my own opinion,having looked at many of them, I still haven’t found one that has the rightbalance of coverage of the necessary concepts most applications need, andaccessibility and ease-of-use by non-experts. That kind of balance is arequirement for any ontology to really go mainstream.
Furthermore, regarding the presentcrop of ontologies, what is still lacking is standardization. Ontologists havenot agreed on which ontologies to use. As a result it’s anybody’s guess whichontology to use when writing a semantic application and thus there is a highdegree of ontology diversity today. Diversity is good, but too much diversityis chaos.
Applications that use differentontologies about the same things don’t automatically interoperate unless theirontologies have been integrated. This is similar to the problem of databaseintegration in the enterprise. In order to interoperate, different applicationsthat use different data schemas for records about the same things, have to bemapped to each other somehow – either at the application-level or the data-level.This mapping can be direct or through some form of middleware.
Ontologies canbe used as a form of semantic middleware, enabling applications to be mapped atthe data-level instead of the applications-level. Ontologies can also be usedto map applications at the applications level, by making ontologies of Webservices and capabilities, by the way. This is an area in which a lot ofresearch is presently taking place.
The OWL language can expressmappings between concepts in different ontologies. But if there are manyontologies, and many of them partially overlap, it is a non-trivial task toactually make the mappings between their concepts.
Even though concept A inontology one and concept B in ontology two may have the same names, and evensome of the same properties, in the context of the rest of the concepts intheir respective ontologies they may imply very different meanings. So simplymapping them as equivalent on the basis of their names is not adequate, theirconnections to all the other concepts in their respective ontologies have to beconsidered as well. It quickly becomes complex. There are some potential waysto automate the construction of mappings between ontologies however – but theyare still experimental. Today, integrating ontologies requires the help ofexpert ontologists, and to be honest, I’m not sure even the experts have itfigured out. It’s more of an art than a science at this point.
Darwinian Selection of Ontologies
All that is needed for mainstream adoption to begin is for a largebody of mainstream content to become semantically tagged andaccessible. This will cause whatever ontology is behind that content to become popular.
When developers see that there is significant content andtraction around aparticular ontology, they will use that ontology for their ownapplicationsabout similar concepts, or at least they will do the work of mappingtheir ownontology to it, and in this way the world will converge in a Darwinianfashionaround a few main ontologies over time.
These main ontologies will then beworth thetime and effort necessary to integrate them on a semantic level,resulting in acohesive Semantic Web. We may in fact see Darwinian natural selection take place not just at the ontology level, but at the level of pieces of ontologies.
A certain ontology may do a good job of defining what a person is, while another may do a good job of defining what a company is. These definitions may be used for a lot of content, and gradually they will become common parts of an emergent meta-ontology comprised of the most-popular pieces from thousands of ontologies. This could be great or it could be a total mess. Nobody knows yet. It’s a subject for further research.
Making Sense of Ontologies
Since ontologies are so important,it is helpful to actually understand what an ontology really is, and what itlooks like. An ontology is a system of formally defined related concepts. Forexample, a simple ontology is this set of statements such as this:
A human is a living thing.
A person is a human.
A person may have a first name.
A person may have a last name.
A person must have one and only onedate of birth.
A person must have a gender.
A person may be socially related toanother person.
A friendship is a kind of socialrelationship.
A romantic relationship is a kindof friendship.
A marriage is a kind of romanticrelationship.
A person may be in a marriage withonly one other person at a time.
A person may be employed by anemployer.
An employer may be a person or anorganization.
An organization is a group ofpeople.
An organization may have a productor a service.
A company is a type organization.
We’ve just built a simple ontologyabout a few concepts: humans, living things, persons, names, socialrelationships, marriages, employment, employers, organizations, groups,products and services. Within this system of concepts there is particular logic,some constraints, and some structure. It may or may not correspond to yourworldview, but it is a worldview that is unambiguously defined, can becommunicated, and is internally logically consistent, and that is what isimportant.
The Semantic Web approach providesan open-standard language, OWL, for defining ontologies. OWL also provides fora way to define instances of ontologies. Instances are assertions within theworldview that a given ontology provides. In other words OWL provides a meansto make statements that connect information to the ontology so that softwarecan understand its meaning unambiguously. For example, below is a set ofstatements based on the above ontology:
There exists a person x.
Person x has a first name “Sue”
Person x has a last name “Smith”
Person x has a full name “Sue Smith”
Sue Smith was born on June 1, 2005
Sue Smith has a gender: female
Sue Smith has a friend: Jane, who isanother person.
Sue Smith is married to: Bob, anotherperson.
Sue Smith is employed by Acme, Inc, a company
Acme Inc. has a product, Widget2.0.
The set of statements above, plusthe ontology they are connected to, collectively comprise a knowledge basethat, if represented formally in the OWL markup language, could be understoodby any application that speaks OWL in the precise manner that it was intendedto be understood.
The OWL language provides a way tomarkup any information such as a data record, an email message or a Web pagewith metadata in the form of statements that link particular words or phrasesto concepts in the ontology. When software applications that understand OWLencounter the information they can then reference the ontology and figure outexactly what the information means – or at least what the ontology says that itmeans.
But something has to add thesesemantic metadata statements to the information – and if it doesn’t add them or adds thewrong ones, then software applications that look at the information will getthe wrong idea. And this is another challenge – how will all this metadata getcreated and added into content? People certainly aren’t going to add it all byhand!
Fortunately there are many ways tomake this easier. The best approach is to automate it using special softwarethat goes through information, analyzes the meaning and adds semantic metadataautomatically. This works today, but the software has to be trained or providedwith rules and that takes some time. It also doesn’t scale cost-effectively tovast data-sets.
Alternatively, individuals can beprovided with ways to add semantics themselves as they author information. Whenyou post your resume in a semantically-aware job board, you could fill out aform about each of your past jobs, and the job board would connect that data toappropriate semantic concepts in an underlying employment ontology. As anend-user you would just fill out a form like you are used to doing;under-the-hood the job board would add the semantics for you.
Another approach is to leveragecommunities to get the semantics. We already see communities that are addingbasic metadata “tags” to photos, news articles and maps. Already a few simpletypes of tags are being used pseudo-semantically: subject tags and geographicaltags. These are primitive forms of semantic metadata. Although they are notexpressed in OWL or connected to formal ontologies, they are at leastsemantically typed with prefixes or by being entered into fields or specificnamespaces that define their types.
Tagging by Example
There may also be another solution to the problem of how to add semantics to content in the not to distant future. Once asuitable amount of content has been marked up with semantic metadata,it may be possible, through purely statistical forms of machinelearning, for software to begin to learn how to do a pretty good job ofmarking up new content with semantic metadata.
For example, if thestring “Nova Spivack” is often marked up with semantic metadata statingthat it indicates a person, and not just any person but a specificperson that is abstractly represented in a knowledge base somewhere,then when software applications encounter a new non-semanticallyenhanced document containing strings such as “Nova Spivack” or”Spivack, Nova” they can make a reasonably good guess that thisindicates that same specific person, and they can add the necessarysemantic metadata to that effect automatically.
As more and more semanticmetadata is added to the Web and made accessible it constitutes a statisticaltraining set that can be learned and generalized from. Although humansmay need to jump-start the process with some manually semantic tagging,it might not be long before software could assist them and eventuallydo all the tagging for them. Only in special cases would software needto ask a human for assistance — for example when totally new terms orexpressions were encountered for the first several times.
The technology for doing this learning already exists — and actually it’s not very different from how search engines like Google measure the community sentiment around web pages. Each time something is semantically tagged with a certain meaning that constitutes a “vote” for it having that meaning. The meaning that gets the most votes wins. It’s an elegant, Darwinian, emergent approach to learning how to automatically tag the Web.
One this is certain, if communities were able to tagthings with more types of tags, and these tags were connected to ontologies andknowledge bases, that would result in a lot of semantic metadata being added tocontent in a completely bottom-up, grassroots manner, and this in turn would enable this process to start to become automated or at least machine-augmented.
Getting the Process Started
But making the userexperience of semantic tagging easy (and immediately beneficial) enough that regular people will do it, is a challenge that has yet to be solved.However, it will be solved shortly. It has to be. And many companies andresearchers know this and are working on it right now. This does have to be solved to get the process of jump-starting the Semantic Web started.
I believe that the Tools Problem – the lack of commercial grade tools forbuilding semantic applications – is essentially solved already (although theproducts have not hit the market yet; they will within a few years at most).The Ontology Problem is further from being solved. I think the way this problemwill be solved is through a few “killer apps” that result in the building up ofa large amount of content around particular ontologies within particular onlineservices.
Where might we see this content initially arising? In my opinion it will most likely be within vertical communities of interest, communities of practice, and communities of purpose. Within such communities there is a need to create a common body of knowledge and to make that knowledge more accessible, connected and useful.
The Semantic Web can really improve the quality of knowledge and user-experience within these domains. Because they are communities, not just static content services, these organizations are driven by user-contributed content — users play a key role in building content and tagging it. We already see this process starting to take place in communities such as Flickr, del.icio.us, the Wikipedia and Digg. We know that communities of people do tag content, and consume tagged content, if it is easy and beneficial enough for to them to do so.
In the near future we may see miniature Semantic Webs arising around particular places, topics and subject areas, projects, and other organizations. Or perhaps, like almost every form of new media in recent times, we may see early adoption of the Semantic Web around online porn — what might be called “the sementic web.”
Whether you like it or not, it is a fact that pornography was one of the biggest drivers of early mainstream adoption of personal video technology, CD-ROMs, and also of the Internet and the Web.
But I think it probably is not necessary this time around. While, I’m sure that the so-called “sementic web” could become better from the Semantic Web, it isn’t going to be the primary driver of adoption of the Semantic Web. That’s probably a good thing — the world can just skip over that phase of development and benefit from this technology with both hands so to speak.
The World Wide Database
In some ways one could think of theSemantic Web as “the world wide database” – it does for the meaning of data records what theWeb did for the formatting documents. But that’s just the beginning. It actually turnsdocuments into richer data records. It turns unstructured data into structureddata. All data becomes structured data in fact. The structure is not merelydefined structurally, but it is defined semantically.
In other words, it’s notmerely that for example, a data record or document can be defined in such a wayas to specify that it contains a certain field of data with a certain label ata certain location – it defines what that field of data actually means in anunambiguous, machine understandable way. If all you want is a Web of data,XML is good enough. But if you want to make that data interoperable and machineunderstandable then you need RDF and OWL – the Semantic Web.
Like any database,the Semantic Web, or rather the myriad mini-semantic-webs that will comprise it,have to overcome the challenge of data integration. Ontologies provide a betterway to describe and map data, but the data still has to be described andmapped, and this does take some work. It’s not a magic bullet.
The Semantic Webmakes it easier to integrate data, but it doesn’t completely remove the dataintegration problem altogether. I think the eventual solution to this problemwill combine technology and community folksonomy oriented approaches.
The Semantic Web in HistoricalContext
Let’s transition now and zoom out to see the bigger picture. The Semantic Webprovides technologies for representing and sharing knowledge in new ways. Inparticular, it makes knowledge more accessible to software, and thus to otherpeople. Another way of saying this is that it liberates knowledge fromparticular human minds and organizations – it provides a way to make knowledgeexplicit, in a standardized format that any application can understand. This isquite significant. Let’s put this in historical perspective.
Before the invention of the printing press, there were two ways to spreadknowledge – one was orally, the other was in some symbolic form such as art orwritten manuscripts. The oral transmission of knowledge had limited range and ahigh error-rate, and the only way to learn something was to meet someone whoknew it and get them to tell you. The other option, symbolic communicationthrough art and writing, provided a means to communicate knowledgeindependently of particular people – but it was only feasible to produce a fewcopies of any given artwork or manuscript because they had to be copied byhand. So the transmission of knowledge was limited to small groups or at leastsmall audiences. Basically, the only way to get access to this knowledge was tobe one of the lucky few who could acquire one of its rare physical copies.
The invention of the printing press changed this – for the first timeknowledge could be rapidly and cost-effectively mass-produced and mass-distributed.Printing made it possible to share knowledge with ever-larger audiences. Thisenabled a huge transformation for human knowledge, society, government,technology – really every area of human life was transformed by thisinnovation.
The World Wide Web made the replication and distribution of knowledge eveneasier – With the Web you don’t even have to physically print or distributeknowledge anymore, the cost of distribution is effectively zero, and everyonehas instant access to everything from anywhere, anytime. That’s a lot betterthan having to lug around a stack of physical books. Everyone potentially haswhatever knowledge they need with no physical barriers. This has been anotherhuge transformation for humanity – and it has affected every area of humanlife. Like the printing press, the Web fundamentally changed the economics ofknowledge.
The Semantic Web is the next big step in this process – it will make all theknowledge of the human race accessible to software. For the first time,non-human things (software applications) will be able to start working withhuman knowledge to do things (for humans) on their own. This is a big leap – aleap like the emergence of a new species, or the symbiosis of two existingspecies into a new form of life.
The printing press and the Web changed the economics of replicating,distributing and accessing knowledge. The Semantic Web changes the economics ofprocessing knowledge. Unlike the printing press and the Web, the Semantic Webenables knowledge to be processed by non-human things.
In other words, humans don’t have to do all the thinking on their own, theycan be assisted by software. Of course we humans have to at least first createthe software (until we someday learn to create software that is smart enough tocreate software too), and we have to create the ontologies necessary for thesoftware to actually understand anything (until we learn to create software thatis smart enough to create ontologies too), and we have to add the semanticmetadata to our content in various ways (until our software is smart enough todo this for us, which it almost is already). But once we do the initial work ofmaking the ontologies and software, and adding semantic metadata, the systemstarts to pick up speed on its own, and over time the amount of work we humanshave to do to make it all function decreases. Eventually, once the system hasencoded enough knowledge and intelligence, it starts to function withoutneeding much help, and when it does need our help, it will simply ask us andlearn from our answers.
This may sound like science-fiction today, but in fact it a lot of this isalready built and working in the lab. The big hurdle is figuring out how to getthis technology to mass-market. That is probably as hard as inventing thetechnology in the first place. But I’m confident that someone will solve iteventually.
Once this happens the economics of processing knowledge will truly bedifferent than it is today. Instead of needing an actual real-live expert, theknowledge of that expert will be accessible to software that can act as theirproxy – and anyone will be able to access this virtual expert, anywhere,anytime. It will be like the Web – but instead of just information beingaccessible, the combined knowledge and expertise of all of humanity will alsobe accessible, and not just to people but also to software applications.
The Question of Consciousness
The Semantic Web literally enables humans to share their knowledge with eachother and with machines. It enables the virtualization of human knowledge andintelligence. With respect to machines, in doing this, it will lend machines“minds” in a certain sense – namely in that they will at least be able tocorrectly interpret the meaning of information and replicate the expertise ofexperts.
But will these machine-minds be conscious? Will they be aware of themeanings they interpret, or will they just be automatons that are simplyfollowing instructions without any awareness of the meanings they areprocessing? I doubt that software will ever be conscious, because from what Ican tell consciousness — or what might be called the sentient awareness ofawareness itself as well as other things that are sensed — is an immaterialphenomena that is as fundamental as space, time and energy — or perhaps evenmore fundamental. But this is just my personal opinion after having searchedfor consciousness through every means possible for decades. It just cannot befound to be something, yet it is definitely and undeniably taking place.
Consciousness can be exemplified through the analogy of space (but unlikespace, consciousness has this property of being aware, it’s not a mere lifelessvoid). We all agree space is there, but nobody can actually point to itsomewhere, and nobody can synthesize space. Space is immaterial andfundamental. It is primordial. So is electricity. Nobody really knows whatelectricity is ultimately, but if you build the right kind of circuit you canchannel it and we’ve learned a lot about how to do that.
Perhaps we may figure out how to channel consciousness like we channelelectricity with some sort of synthetic device someday, but I think that ishighly unlikely. I think if you really want to create consciousness it’s mucheasier and more effective to just have children. That’s something ordinarymortals can do today with the technology they were born with. Of course whenyou have children you don’t really “create” their consciousness, it seems to bethere on its own. We don’t really know what it is or where it comes from, orwhen it arises there. We know very little about consciousness today.Considering that it is the most fundamental human experience of all, it isactually surprising how little we know about it!
In any case, until we truly delve far more deeply into the nature of themind, consciousness will be barely understood or recognized, let aloneexplained or synthesized by anyone. In many eastern civilizations there aremulti-thousand year traditions that focus quite precisely on the nature ofconsciousness. The major religions have all universally concluded thatconsciousness is beyond the reach of science, beyond the reach of concepts,beyond the mind entirely. All those smart people analyzing consciousness for solong, and with such precision, and so many methods of inquiry, may have a pointworth listening to.
Whether or not machines will ever actually “know” or be capable of beingconscious of that meaning or expertise is a big debate, but at least we can allagree that they will be able to interpret the meaning of information and rulesif given the right instructions. Without having to be conscious, software willbe able to process semantics quite well — this has already been proven. It’sworking today.
While consciousness is and may always be a mystery that we cannot synthesize– the ability for software to follow instructions is an established fact. Inits most reduced form, the Semantic Web just makes it possible to providericher kinds of instructions. There’s no magic to it. Just a lot of details. Infact, to play on a famous line, “it’s semantics all the way down.”
The Semantic Web does not require that we make conscious software. It justprovides a way to make slightly more intelligent software. There’s a bigdifference. Intelligence is simply a form of information processing, for themost part. It does not require consciousness — the actual awareness of what isgoing on — which is something else altogether.
While highly intelligentsoftware may need to sense its environment and its own internal state andreason about these, it does not actually have to be conscious to do this. Theseoperations are for the most part simple procedures applied vast numbers of timeand in complex patterns. Nowhere in them is there any consciousness nor doesconsciousness suddenly emerge when suitable levels of complexity are reached.
Consciousness is something quite special and mysterious. And fortunately forhumans, it is not necessary for the creation of more intelligent software, noris it a byproduct of the creation of more intelligent software, in my opinion.
The Intelligence of the Web
So the real point of the Semantic Web is that it enables the Web to becomemore intelligent. At first this may seem like a rather outlandish statement,but in fact the Web is already becoming intelligent, even without the SemanticWeb.
Although the intelligence of the Web is not very evident at first glance,nonetheless it can be found if you look for it. This intelligence doesn’t existacross the entire Web yet, it only exists in islands that are few and farbetween compared to the vast amount of information on the Web as a whole. Butthese islands are growing, and more are appearing every year, and they arestarting to connect together. And as this happens the collective intelligenceof the Web is increasing.
Perhaps the premier example of an “island of intelligence” is theWikipedia, but there are many others: The Open Directory, portals such as Yahooand Google, vertical content providers such as CNET and WebMD, commercecommunities such as Craigslist and Amazon, content oriented communities such asLiveJournal, Slashdot, Flickr and Digg and of course the millions of discussionboards scattered around the Web, and social communities such as MySpace andFacebook. There are also large numbers of private islands of intelligence onthe Web within enterprises — for example the many online knowledge andcollaboration portals that exist within businesses, non-profits, andgovernments.
What makes these islands “intelligent” is that they are places where people(and sometimes applications as well) are able to interact with each other tohelp grow and evolve collections of knowledge. When you look at them close-upthey appear to be just like any other Web site, but when you look at what theyare doing as a whole – these services are thinking.They are learning, self-organizing, sensing their environments, interpreting,reasoning, understanding, introspecting, and building knowledge. These are theactivities of minds, of intelligent systems.
The intelligence of a system such as the Wikipedia exists on several levels– the individuals who author and edit it are intelligent, the groups that helpto manage it are intelligent, and the community as a whole – which isconstantly growing, changing, and learning – is intelligent.
Flickr and Digg also exhibit intelligence. Flickr’s growing system of tagsis the beginnings of something resembling a collective visual sense organ onthe Web. Images are perceived, stored, interpreted, and connected to conceptsand other images. This is what the human visual system does. Similarly, Digg isa community that collectively detects, focuses attention on, and interpretscurrent news. It’s not unlike a primitive collective analogue to the humanfacility for situational awareness.
There are many other examples of collective intelligence emerging on theWeb. The Semantic Web will add one more form of intelligent actor to the mix –intelligent applications. In the future, after the Wikipedia is connected tothe Semantic Web, as well as humans, it will be authored and edited by smartapplications that constantly look for new information, new connections, and newinferences to add to it.
Although the knowledge on the Web today is still mostly organized withindifferent islands of intelligence, these islands are starting to reach out andconnect together. They are forming trade-routes, connecting their economies,and learning each other’s languages and cultures. The next-step will be forthese islands of knowledge to begin to share not just content and services, butalso their knowledge — what they know about their content and services. The SemanticWeb will make this possible, by providing an open format for the representationand exchange of knowledge and expertise.
When applications integrate their content using the Semantic Web they willalso be able to integrate their context, their knowledge – this will make thecontent much more useful and the integration much deeper. For example, when anapplication imports photos from another application it will also be able toimport semantic metadata about the meaning and connections of those photos.Everything that the community and application know about the photos in theservice that provides the content (the photos) can be shared with the servicethat receives the content. Better yet, there will be no need for customapplication integration in order for this to happen: as long as both servicesconform to the open standards of the Semantic Web the knowledge is instantlyportable and reusable.
Freeing Intelligence from Silos
Today much of the real value of the Web (and in the world) is still lockedaway in the minds of individuals, the cultures of groups and organizations, andapplication-specific data-silos. The emerging Semantic Web will begin to unlockthe intelligence in these silos by making the knowledge and expertise theyrepresent more accessible and understandable.
It will free knowledge and expertise from the narrow confines of individualminds, groups and organizations, and applications, and make them not only moreinteroperable, but more portable. It will be possible for example for a personor an application to share everything they know about a subject of interest aseasily as we share documents today. In essence the Semantic Web provides acommon language (or at least a common set of languages) for sharing knowledgeand intelligence as easily as we share content today.
The Semantic Web also provides standards for searching and reasoning moreintelligently. The SPARQL query language enables any application to ask forknowledge from any other application that speaks SPARQL. Instead of merekeyword search, this enables semantic search. Applications can search forspecific types of things that have particular attributes and relationships toother things.
In addition, standards such as SWRL provide formalisms for representing andsharing axioms, or rules, as well. Rules are a particular kind of knowledge –and there is a lot of it to represent and share, for example proceduralknowledge, and logical structures about the world. An ontology provides a meansto describe the basic entities, their attributes and relations, but rulesenable you to also make logical assertions and inferences about them. Withoutgoing into a lot of detail about rules and how they work here, the importantpoint to realize is that they are also included in the framework. All forms ofknowledge can be represented by the Semantic Web.
Zooming Way, Waaaay Out
So far in this article, I’ve spenta lot of time talking about plumbing – the pipes, fluids, valves, fixtures,specifications and tools of the Semantic Web. I’ve also spent some time onillustrations of how it might be useful in the very near future to individuals,groups and organizations. But where is it heading after this? What is thelong-term potential of this and what might it mean for the human race on ahistorical time-scale?
For those of you who would prefer not to speculate, stop reading here. Forthe rest of you, I believe that the true significance of the Semantic Web, on along-term timescale is that it provides an infrastructure that will enable theevolution of increasingly sophisticated forms of collective intelligence. Ultimatelythis will result in the Web itself becoming more and more intelligent, untilone day the entire human species together with all of its software andknowledge will function as something like a single worldwide distributed mind –a global mind.
Just the like the mind of a single human individual, the global mind will bevery chaotic, yet out of that chaos will emerge cohesive patterns of thoughtand decision. Just like in an individual human mind, there will be feedbackbetween different levels of order – from individuals to groups to systems ofgroups and back down from systems of groups to groups to individuals. Becauseof these feedback loops the system will adapt to its environment, and to itsown internal state.
The coming global mind will collectively exhibit forms of cognition andbehavior that are the signs of higher-forms of intelligence. It will form andreact to concepts about its “self” – just like an individual human mind. Itwill learn and introspect and explore the universe. The thoughts it thinks maysometimes be too big for any one person to understand or even recognize them –they will be comprised of shifting patterns of millions of pieces of knowledge.
The Role of Humanity
Every person on the Internet will be a part of the global mind. Andcollectively they will function as its consciousness. I do not believe some newform of consciousness will suddenly emerge when the Web passes some thresholdof complexity. I believe that humanity IS the consciousness of the Web anduntil and unless we ever find a way to connect other lifeforms to the Web, orwe build conscious machines, humans will be the only form of consciousness ofthe Web.
When I say that humans will function as the consciousness of the Web I meanthat we will be the things in the system that know. The knowledge of theSemantic Web is what is known, but what knows that knowledge has to besomething other than knowledge. A thought is knowledge, but what knows thatthought is not knowledge, it is consciousness, whatever that is. We can figureout how to enable machines to represent and use knowledge, but we don’t knowhow to make them conscious, and we don’t have to. Because we are alreadyconscious.
As we’ve discussed earlier in this article, we don’t need conscious machines, we just need more intelligent machines.Intelligence – at least basic forms of it – does not require consciousness. It may be the case that the very highest forms of intelligence require or are capable of consciousness. This may mean that software will never achieve the highest levels of intelligence and probably guaranteesthat humans (and other conscious things) will always play a special role in theworld; a role that no computer system will be able to compete with. We providethe consciousness to the system. There may be all sorts of other intelligent,non-conscious software applications and communities on the Web; in fact therealready are, with varying degrees of intelligence. But individual humans, andgroups of humans, will be the only consciousness on the Web.
The Collective Self
Although the software of the Semantic Web will not be conscious we can say that system as a whole contains or is conscious to the extent that human consciousnesses are part of it. And like most conscious entities, it may also start to be self-conscious.
If the Web ever becomes a global mind as I am predicting, will it have a“self?” Will there be a part of the Web that functions as its central self-representation?Perhaps someone will build something like that someday, or perhaps it will evolve.Perhaps it will function by collecting reports from applications and people inreal-time – a giant collective zeitgeist.
In the early days of the Web portals such as Yahoo! provided this function — they were almost real-time maps of the Web and what was happening. Today making such a map is nearly impossible, but services such as Google Zeitgeist at least attempt to provide approximations of it. Perhaps through random sampling it can be done on a broader scale.
My guess is that the global mind will need a self-representation at somepoint. All forms of higher intelligence seem to have one. It’s necessary forunderstanding, learning and planning. It may evolve at first as a bunch ofcompeting self-representations within particular services or subsystems withinthe collective. Eventually they will converge or at least narrow down to just afew major perspectives. There may also be millions of minor perspectives thatcan be drilled down into for particular viewpoints from these top-level “portals.”
The collective self, will function much like the individual self – as amirror of sorts. Its function is simply to reflect. As soon as it exists theentire system will make a shift to a greater form of intelligence – because forthe first time it will be able to see itself, to measure itself, as a whole. Itis at this phase transition when the first truly global collective self-mirroring function evolves, that we can say that the transition from a bunch of cooperating intelligent parts toa new intelligent whole in its own right has taken place.
I think that the collective self, even if it converges on a few majorperspectives that group and summarize millions of minor perspectives, will becommunity-driven and highly decentralized. At least I hope so – because theself-concept is the most important part of any mind and it should be designedin a way that protects it from being manipulated for nefarious ends. At least Ihope that is how it is designed.
Programming the Global Mind
On the other hand, there are times when a little bit of adjustment or guidance iswarranted – just as in the case of an individual mind, the collective selfdoesn’t merely reflect, it effectively guides the interpretation of the pastand present, and planning for the future.
One way to change the direction ofthe collective mind, is to change what is appearing in the mirror of thecollective self. This is a form of programming on a vast scale – When thisprogramming is dishonest or used for negative purposes it is called “propaganda,” but there are cases whereit can be done for beneficial purposes as well. An example of this today ispublic service advertising and educational public television programming. Allforms of mass-media today are in fact collective social programming. When yourealize this it is not surprising that our present culture is violent andmessed up – just look at our mass-media!
In terms of the global mind, ideally one would hope that it would be able tolearn and improve over time. One would hope that it would not have the collective equivalent of psycho-social disorders. To facilitate this, just like any form of higherintelligence, it may need to be taught, and even parented a bit. It also mayneed a form of therapy now and then. These functions could be provided by thepeople who participate in it. Again, I believe that humans serve a vital and irreplaceablerole in this process.
How It All Might Unfold
Now how is this all going to unfold? I believe that there are a number ofkey evolutionary steps that Semantic Web will go through as the Web evolvestowards a true global mind:
1. Representing individual knowledge. The first step is to make individuals’knowledge accessible to themselves. As individuals become inundated withincreasing amounts of information, they will need better ways of managing it,keeping track of it, and re-using it. They will (or already do) need”personal knowledge management.”
2. Connecting individual knowledge. Next, once individual knowledge isrepresented, it becomes possible to start connecting it and sharing it acrossindividuals. This stage could be called “interpersonal knowledgemanagement.”
3. Representing group knowledge. Groups of individuals also need ways ofcollectively representing their knowledge, making sense of it, and growing itover time. Wikis and community portals are just the beginning. The Semantic Webwill take these “group minds” to the next level — it will make the collective knowledge ofgroups far richer and more re-usable.
4. Connecting group knowledge. This step is analogous to connectingindividual knowledge. Here, groups become able to connect their knowledge togetherto form larger collectives, and it becomes possible to more easily access andshare knowledge between different groups in very different areas of interest.
5. Representing the knowledge of the entire Web. This stage — what might becalled “the global mind” — is still in the distant future, but atthis point in the future we will begin to be able to view, search, and navigatethe knowledge of the entire Web as a whole. The distinction here is thatinstead of a collection of interoperating but separate intelligentapplications, individuals and groups, the entire Web itself will begin tofunction as one cohesive intelligent system. The crucial step that enables thisto happen is the formation of a collective self-representation. This enablesthe system to see itself as a whole for the first time.
How it May be Organized
I believe the global mind will be organized mainly in the form of bottom-up and lateral, distributed emergent computation andcommunity — but it will be facilitated by certain key top-down services thathelp to organize and make sense of it as a whole. I think this future Web willbe highly distributed, but will have certain large services within it as well– much like the human brain itself, which is organized into functionalsub-systems for processes like vision, hearing, language, planning, memory,learning, etc.
As the Web gets more complex there will come a day when nobody understandsit anymore – after that point we will probably learn more about how the Web isorganized by learning about the human mind and brain – they will be quitesimilar in my opinion. Likewise we will probably learn a tremendous amountabout the functioning of the human brain and mind by observing how the Webfunctions, grows and evolves over time, because they really are quite similarin at least an abstract sense.
The internet and its software and content is like a brain, and the state ofits software and the content is like its mind. The people on the Internet arelike its consciousness. Although these are just analogies, they are actuallyuseful, at least in helping us to envision and understand this complex system. Asthe field of general systems theory has shown us in the past, systems at verydifferent levels of scale tend to share the same basic characteristics and obeythe same basic laws of behavior. Not only that, but evolution tends to convergeon similar solutions for similar problems. So these analogies may be more thanjust rough approximations, they may be quite accurate in fact.
The future global brain will require tremendous computing and storageresources — far beyond even what Google provides today. Fortunately as Moore’s Law advances thecost of computing and storage will eventually be low enough to do thiscost-effectively. However even with much cheaper and more powerful computingresources it will still have to be a distributed system. I doubt that therewill be any central node because quite simply no central solution will be ableto keep up with all the distributed change taking place. Highly distributed problemsrequire distributed solutions and that is probably what will eventually emergeon the future Web.
Someday perhaps it will be more like a peer-to-peer network, comprised ofapplications and people who function sort of like the neurons in the human brain.Perhaps they will be connected and organized by higher-level super-peers orsuper-nodes which bring things together, make sense of what is going on andcoordinate mass collective activities. But even these higher-level serviceswill probably have to be highly distributed as well. It really will bedifficult to draw boundaries between parts of this system, they will all beconnected as an integral whole.
In fact it may look very much like a grid computing architecture – in whichall the services are dynamically distributed across all the nodes such that atany one time any node might be working on a variety of tasks for differentservices. My guess is that because this is the simplest, most fault-tolerant,and most efficient way to do mass computation, it is probably what will evolvehere on Earth.
The Ecology of Mind
Where we are today in this evolutionary process is perhaps equivalent to therise of early forms of hominids. Perhaps Austrolapithecus or Cro-Magnon, ormaybe the first Homo Sapiens. Compared to early man, the global mind is like the rise of 21stcentury mega-cities. A lot of evolution has to happen to get there. But itprobably will happen, unless humanity self-destructs first,which I sincerely hope we somehow manage to avoid. And this brings me to afinal point. This vision of the future global mind is highly technological;however I don’t think we’ll ever accomplish it without a new focus on ecology.
Ecology probably conjures up images of hippies and biologists, or maybehippies who are biologists, or at least organic farmers, for most people, but infact it is really the science of living systems and how they work. And anysystem that includes living things is a living system. This means that the Webis a living system and the global mind will be a living system too. As a living system, the Web is an ecosystem and is alsoconnected to other ecosystems. In short, ecology is absolutely essential tomaking sense of the Web, let alone helping to grow and evolve it.
In many ways the Semantic Web and the collective minds, and the global mind,that it enables, can be seen as an ecosystem of people, applications,information and knowledge. This ecosystem is very complex, much like naturalecosystems in the physical world. An ecosystem isn’t built, it’s grown, andevolved. And similarly the Semantic Web, and the coming global mind, will notreally be built, they will be grown and evolved. The people and organizationsthat end up playing a leading role in this process will be the ones thatunderstand and adapt to the ecology most effectively.
In my opinion ecology is going to be the most important science anddiscipline of the 21st century – it is the science of healthysystems. What nature teaches us about complex systems can be applied to everykind of system – and especially the systems we are evolving on the Web. Inorder to ever have a hope of evolving a global mind, and all the wonderfullevels of species-level collective intelligence that it will enable, we have tonot destroy the planet before we get there. Ecology is the science that cansave us, not the Semantic Web (although perhaps by improving collectiveintelligence, it can help).
Ecology is essentially the science of community – whether biological,technological or social. And community is a key part of the Semantic Web atevery level: communities of software, communities of people, and communities ofgroups. In the end the global mind is the ultimate human community. It is thereward we get for finally learning how to live together in peace and balancewith our environment.
The Necessity of Sustainability
The point of this discussion of the relevance of ecology to the future ofthe Web, and my vision for the global mind, is that I think that it is clearthat if the global mind ever emerges it will not be in a world that is anythinglike what we might imagine. It won’t be like the Borg in Star Trek, it won’t belike living inside of a machine. Humans won’t be relegated to the roles ofslaves or drones. Robots won’t be doing all the work. The entire world won’t becoated with silicon. We won’t all live in a virtual reality. It won’t be one ofthese technological dystopias.
In fact, I think the global mind can only come to pass in a much greener,more organic, healthier, more balanced and sustainable world. Because it willtake a long time for the global mind to emerge, if humanity doesn’t figure outhow to create that sort of a world, it will wipe itself out sooner or later,but certainly long before the global mind really happens. Not only that, butthe global mind will be smart by definition, and hopefully this intelligencewill extend to helping humanity manage its resources, civilizations andrelationships to the natural environment.
The Smart Environment
The global mind also needs a global body so to speak. It’s not going to bean isolated homunculus floating in a vat of liquid that replaces the physicalworld! It will be a smart environment that ubiquitously integrates with ourphysical world. We won’t have to sit in front of computers or deliberatelylogon to the network to interact with the global mind. It will be everywhere.
The global mind will be physically integrated into furniture, houses,vehicles, devices, artworks, and even the natural environment. It will sensethe state of the world and different ecosystems in real-time and alert humansand applications to emerging threats. It will also be able to allocateresources intelligently to compensate for natural disasters, storms, andenvironmental damage – much in the way that the air traffic control systemsallocates and manages airplane traffic. It won’t do it all on its own, humansand organizations will be a key part of the process.
Someday the global mind may even be physically integrated into our bodiesand brains, even down the level of our DNA. It may in fact learn how to curediseases and improve the design of the human body, extending our lives, sensorycapabilities, and cognitive abilities. We may be able to interact with it bythought alone. At that point it will become indistinguishable from a limitedfrom of omniscience, and everyone may have access to it. Although it will onlyextend to wherever humanity has a presence in the universe, within thatboundary it will know everything there is to know, and everyone will be able toknow any of it they are interested in.
Enabling a Better World
By enabling greater forms of collective intelligence to emerge we really arehelping to make a better world, a world that learns and hopefully understandsitself well enough to find a way to survive. We’re building something thatsomeday will be wonderful – far greater than any of us can imagine. We’re helpingto make the species and the whole planet more intelligent. We’re building thetools for the future of human community. And that future community, if it ever arrives,will be better, more self-aware, more sustainable than the one we live intoday.
I should also mention that knowledge is power, and power can be used forgood or evil. The Semantic Web makes knowledge more accessible. This puts more power in the hands of the many, not just the few. As long as we stick to this vision — we stick to making knowledge open and accessible, using open standards, in as distributed a fashion as we can devise, then the potential power of the Semantic Web will be protected against being coopted or controlled by the few at the expense of the many. This is where technologists really have to be socially responsible when making development decisions. It’s important that we build a more open world, not a less open world. It’s important that we build a world where knowledge, integration and unification are balanced with respect for privacy, individuality, diversity and freedom of opinion.
But I am not particularly worried that the Semantic Web and the future globalmind will be the ultimate evil – I don’t think it is likely that we will end upwith a system of total control dominated by evil masterminds with powerfulSemantic Web computer systems to do their dirty work. Statistically speaking, criminal empires don’t last very long because theyare run by criminals who tend to be very short-sighted and who also surroundthemselves with other criminals who eventually unseat them, or theyself-destruct. It’s possible that the Semantic Web, like any other technology,may be used by the bad guys to spy on citizens, manipulate the world, and doevil things. But only in the short-term.
In the long-term either our civilization will get tired of endlesssuccessions of criminal empires and realize that the only way to actuallysurvive as a species is to invent a form of government that is immune to beingtaken over by evil people and organizations, or it will self-destruct. Eitherway, that is a hurdle we have to cross before the global mind that I envisioncan ever come about. Many civilizations came before ours, and it is likely thatours will not be the last one on this planet. It may in fact be the case that adifferent form of civilization is necessary for the global mind to emerge, andis the natural byproduct of the emergence of the global mind.
We know that the global mind cannot emerge anytime soon, and therefore, ifit ever emerges then by definition it must be in the context of a civilizationthat has learned to become sustainable. A long-term sustainable civilization is a non-evil civilization. And that is why I think it is a safebet to be so optimistic about the long-term future of this trend.
This article discusses a new research project at Google where they are working on a way to run contextual ads on your computer that reflect what is taking place in the room around you. The technology works by using the computer microphone to make brief snippet recordings of your room where you are. It then tries to recognize music or TV content that is playing. Next it matches that to a database of ads in order to show ads on your screen that are related to what is heard in the room you are working in. This sounds almost like a joke — except that it probably isn’t. I’m not sure what the benefit to me the consumer would be for letting Google eavesdrop on my life to that extent. Do I really need more relevant ads THAT much? What a strange world we live in.
This article from the Guardian raises the red flag about the vast amount of personal information that search engines are collecting, and the risks to individual privacy that entails. The article was really well written and made some good points. I’ve blogged about my thoughts about this issue in a previous post.
My company, Radar Networks, is building a very large dataset by crawling and mining the Web. We then apply a range of new algorithms to the data (part of our secret sauce) to generate some very interesting and useful new information about the Web. We are looking for a few experienced search engineers to join our team — specifically people with hands-on experience designing and building large-scale, high-performance Web crawling and text-mining systems. If you are interested, or you know anyone who is interested or might be qualified for this, please send them our way. This is your chance to help architect and build a really large and potentially important new system. You can read more specifics abour our open jobs here.
The recent negative hype about the lack of privacy in search results got me thinking about the needs of online services versus those of individuals. Is there a way to satisfy both constraints?
AOL’s accidental data release was one thing that worried me. Google’s "personal search" feature, where the log of all your searches is displayed, was another. The fact that everything you search for and click on, during your entire life, could potentially be logged, owned, accessed, and shared, by and with parties other than yourself, without your consent or even your knowledge, is a step towards a world I wouldn’t want to live in.
The arguments in favor of allowing this to continue either hinge on commercial needs or homeland security and law enforcement. Regarding commercial needs: just as in other situations where commercial needs pose risks to individual privacy (such as medical records for example), the government needs to step in and regulate if the industry can’t do an adequate job of self-regulating. And regarding industry self-regulation, it can easily become a case of wolves guarding sheep, and so has to be carefully regulated by government on a meta-level. As for the needs of homeland security and law enforcement, access should be strictly regulated (and in theory, it already is).
The thing is, even if governments and industry stepped up and took responsibility for regulating this situation, one can never be
sure that future regime change, accidents, or individuals or groups
with both access and a motive won’t lead to future privacy violations. As a result
even ironclad assurances, laws, and strict procedures by organizations
and governments, won’t protect anyone against such unknowns. The only truly safe solution is one that puts all of the control, and all of the responsibility and liability, for one’s own private data, in one’s own hands. In a digital world, where everything is potentially recorded and logged forever, this is really important.
The solution is, I think, that individuals, rather than search companies, should own and control their searchstreams and their clickstreams such that they can make use of that information for their own personalization needs, and they can selectively (and either authentically or anonymously) share it with other services if and when they want to. Someone should build an infrastructure that enables this and then make it an API that all services and apps can use. The folks at Attention Trust and Root Markets are on the right track. This is a very interesting business opportunity.
I would like to see a search engine and a search toolboar for Firefox that enable you to search anonymously. I did a little research (on Google, how ironic) and found Proxify, Kaxy and Mezzy. They seem interesting although perhaps a little clunky seeming. What we need is a high-profile, really polished, professional, well-funded, simple anonymous proxy for Google. And a Firefox toolbar to go with it.
If a service like what I am describing existed (and there was some level of independent audit that could assure me that it really didn’t capture or save anything private without my permission — for example if all the code was open source and vetted), then I would definitely always use it instead of going directly to Google. Does it exist already? Let me know. If not, someone should build it. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if it showed me ads, just like Google does. So it could make money from my searching. I would bring my business there as would most people who have educated themselves about this issue.
Finally, wearing my corporate hat for the moment, as someeone building an online service in the search space, if there was a suitable (and that is the key term here…) way that the service my company is building could give individuals control of their private data while also still being able to learn from it in aggregate and/or anonymously for individuals, that would be great. As an online service provider I don’t really want to have to worry about keeping such private information and all the overhead and potential liability that goes with it.
Online services do need to learn from the behavior of their users in order to personalize content and target ads, etc. But they don’t need to necessarily house that data themselves, nor do they need to necessarily be able to key it to the real identities of their users. If there was an infrastructure that enabled my service to learn, personalize and target, without having to hold and manage the dataset underlying that capability, that would actually be a potential savings to my business, and a reduction of risk, and a benefit to my users. The thing is, while early attempts to enable this do exist, they aren’t mature enough to rely on, and nobody knows how well they will scale or whether they will have enough funding and traction to last. So in the meantime those of us building online services are in a gray area — we need certain features for our services to function well, and we also would like to find a way to protect privacy for the individual. This is the connundrum of the moment. It’s a business opportunity for someone out there.
Check out this video demo of Microsoft Photosynth — an experimental technology that combines multiple photos of the same thing into a 3-D model that can then be navigated and explored — it’s beautiful, visionary and well… just awesome.
A new mathematical technique provides a dramatically better way to
analyze data, such as audio data, radar, sonar, or any other form of
Humans have 200 million light receptors in their eyes,
10 to 20 million receptors devoted to smell, but only 8,000 dedicated
to sound. Yet despite this miniscule number, the auditory system is the
fastest of the five senses. Researchers credit this discrepancy to a
series of lightning-fast calculations in the brain that translate
minimal input into maximal understanding. And whatever those
calculations are, they’re far more precise than any sound-analysis
program that exists today.
This is a very interesting scenario showing how China could potentially trounce US forces in a single, calculated strike. While it doesn’t consider the option that US would retaliate nonconventially, shifting the game to a new playing field, it certainly makes a compelling case for China winning in a conventional conflict in their territorial waters at least. The author concludes by suggesting the US has two options — continue seeking world domination and eventually face such a situation, or take a different approach altogether and seek to lead the world in medicine, fighting poverty, and helping emerging countries — a strategy which the author believes would win the hearts and minds of people around the world, leading to longer-term gains for the US than a strategy that seeks leadership through military dominance.
Today I read an interesting article in the New York Times about a company called Rite-Solutions which is using a home-grown stock market for ideas to catalyze bottom-up innovation across all levels of personnel in their organization. This is a way to very effectively harness and focus the collective creativity and energy in an organization around the best ideas that the organization generates.
Using virtual stock market systems to measure community sentiment is not a new concept but it is a new frontier. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what this paradigm can accomplish. For lots of detailed links to resources on this topic see the wikipedia entry on prediction markets. This prediction markets portal also has collected interesting links on the topic. Here is an informative blog post about recent prediction market attempts. Here is a scathing critique of some prediction markets.
There are many interesting examples of prediction markets on the Web:
- Google uses a similar kind of system — their own version of a prediction market — to enable staff members to collaboratively predict the likelihood that various internal projects and events will occur on-schedule.
- Yahoo also has a prediction market called BuzzGame that enables visitors to help predict technology trends.
- Newsfutures Exchange is a prediction market about the news, which is powered by a commercial prediction market engine sold by a company called Newsfutures.
- BlogShares, a fantasy stock market for Weblogs in which players invest virtual money in the blogs they think will gain the most audience share.
- Intrade is another exchange for trading on idea futures.
- The Iowa Political Futures Exchange is a prediction market that focuses on political change.
- Tradesports is a prediction market around sports topics.
- The Hollywood Stock Exchange is a prediction market around movies.
- The Foresight Exchange is another prediction market for predicting future events.
Here are some interesting, more detailed discussions of prediction market ideas and potential features.
Another area that is related, but highly underleveraged today, are ways to enable communities to help establish whether various ideas are correct using argumentation. By enabling masses of people to provide reasons to agree or disagree with ideas, and with those reasons as well, we can automatically rate what ideas are most agreed with or disagreed with. One very interesting example of this is TruthMapping.com. Some further concepts related to this approach are discussed in this thread.
This is a great overview of the current state of the art in quantum computing, and how it could benefit all of us in the future.
The Edge has published mini-essays by 119 "big thinkers" on their "most dangerous ideas" — fun reading.
The history of science is replete with discoveries
that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally
dangerous in their time; the Copernican and
Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious.
What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think
about (not necessarily one you originated)
that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?
I recently read a report of new neuroscience research in which researchers are able to predict what a person will recall by analyzing their brainstate. You can read a summary here.
This reminds me of an idea I had a while back for using biofeedback to guide brainstates, in order to improve memory. Here’s a hypothetical experiment that illustrates the idea. Show a person a set of photographs, and while they are observing each photo use functional brain imaging to record their brainstate. Later, show them the same photos several more times and make additional recordings of their brainstate, in order to generate a database of brainstates that correspond to their perception of each photo. Next, select a photo secretly (without telling the human subject) and lookup its corresponding recorded brainstates in the database. Then, guide the human subject to generate a brainstate that corresponds to the secretly chosen photo using biofeedback that is tied to their real-time brainstate. For example, provide the human subject with a sound or a computer image that corresponds to their real-time brainstate, and which provides them with positive or negative feedback based on the "distance" from their present brainstate to the desired target brainstate, enabling them to guide their brainstate the correct configuration. After the subject becomes accustomed to using the biofeedback system, apply it to guide them to generate a brainstate that matches or is closely within range of the desired brainstates for the selected photo. Then ask the subject to report which photo they are thinking of. We can measure how well the method works by the accuracy by which the subject reports thinking of the photo we selected originally.
If this process works it could be used someday as a new kind of memory aid. For example, suppose that someday functional brain imaging gets small and portable, or even wearable or implantable, so that everyone has access to their real-time brainstate data. When they want to "remember" something they simply hit the "record" button on their personal brainstate recorder and it measures their brainstate while they are thinking of and/or perceiving what they want to recall. Then they simply give this dataset a label or filename in their personal memory database. Later when they want to recall a specific thing, they just select the label and the system uses biofeedback to guide them back to generating that brainstate, at which point they can then recall whatever it is they were trying to remember.
This article is quite eye-opening. It appears the US government and military, as well as leading contractors, may have been heavily hacked by foreign governments, and it’s being kept secret.
Following in the footsteps of Douglas Engelbart’s pioneering work, SRI has announced the upcoming open-source (LGPL) release of Open IRIS — an experimental Semantic Web personal information manager that runs on the desktop. IRIS was developed for the DARPA CALO project and makes use of code libraries and ontology components developed at SRI, and my own startup, Radar Networks, as well as other participating research organizations.
IRIS is designed to help users make better sense of their information. It can run on it’s own, or can be connected to the CALO system which provides advanced machine learning capabilities to it. I am very proud to see IRIS go open source — I think it has potential to become a major platform for learning applications on the desktop.
IRIS is still in its early stages of evolution, and much work will be done this year to add further functionality, improve the GUI and make IRIS even more user-friendly. But already it is perhaps the most sophisticated and comprehensive semantic desktop PIM ever created. If you would like to read more about IRIS, this paper provides a good overview.
Congratulations to the team at SRI for reaching this important milestone!
(Note: IRIS is a product of SRI. Radar Networks helps to develop IRIS, under subcontract to SRI, but our primary work is on our own commercial products, which have not yet been released, and which are not related to IRIS. Stay tuned.)
A system for wireless quantum cryptography has been announced by BBN. This is curious: I wonder how they manage the key exchange? They could be using a laser, I suppose, but that would only be line of sight, or would require airborne reflectors. Another possibility would be the EPR effect, but if they actually built a transmitter based on that they would probably win the Nobel Prize, so I’m doubtful. It will be interesting to learn more. Also, I wonder what the reaction will be over at MagiQ.
I just read this really cool idea about how to design a programming language for the global brain — think of it as grid computing, but where some of the agents in the grid are humans and others are computers, working together to solve problems. I’ve had similar ideas to this over the years, for example the use of collaborative networks to mark up and tag content on the Semantic Web, as well as various forms of expertise referral networks. What I like about this new proposal is that it suggests an actual language for writing global mind programs. That’s a new angle. Brilliant.
After 30 years of research, a very interesting new theory of cognition has been announced. The theory posits that all human cognition and behavior is based on just one simple, non-algorithmic procedure that has been named confabulation. If the theory is correct it could offer a radical new approach to artificial intelligence, knowledge discovery, and knowledge management.
A recent article on Boing Boing reports the most recent round of Chinese cyberattacks on the Tibetan government in exile.
China has increasingly aimed its sophisticated cyberwar teams at the low-tech, peace-loving Tibetans. I know dozens of Tibetan lamas and their staffs and they all use PC’s — and none of them know anything about viruses, firewalls, trojan horses, etc. They are sitting ducks for this kind of attack (maybe they should all use Macs? Fewer/no viruses! That would be a great PR move for Apple).
The Tibetans just want the freedom to practice their religion without being disturbed. It would be really wonderful if the white-hat hacker community would volunteer their services to help the Tibetans defend themselves from this state-sponsored cyberterror.
This article provides an overview of the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton, which has found that the behavior of a network of specially shielded random number generators deviates from stasticial randomness prior to major world events. I have been following this project for several years and have made various suggestions for further experiments to test the system. It is very intriguing.