The e-G8 Summit, Unveiled

I was recently honored to be invited by President Sarkozy of France to participate in the e-G8 Summit — a new and potentially useful summit of global Internet leaders, right before this year’s G8 Summit in Paris.

This event will bring together Internet leaders and political leaders, for two days of discussions about the Internet. The goal is to advise the G8 leaders on important issues related to the Internet.

I’m looking forward to this event, and I am hopeful that it will produce useful recommendations for the G8 leaders, and perhaps lead to an ongoing process to advise them on Internet policy.

But in researching and preparing for this, I have found very little information about the event, who the other attendees will be, and what the real motivations for the event are.

In addition – for an event of this magnitude, it is somewhat surprising that there has not yet been any significant press coverage of it yet.

So, in the interest of transparency, and in helping to bring together the community of participants, and in addition, to seek suggestions from others for what issues or suggestions we should focus on, I am going to unveil the information I have received about the event publicly, for the first time.

I believe this is the first time this information has been shared publicly, and I think you will find it interesting…

Then, in the second half of this article, below, I will discuss my questions about what this event might achieve, what we might bring to the table there, and in particular what  ideas or proposals you might have as well?

 

The Invitation

Dear Mr. SPIVACK,

In my current capacity as President of the G8, I would like to place the issue of the Internet on the agenda of the Summit of Heads of State and Government that will be held in Deauville on 26-27 May 2011. We are all in agreement that it is essential for our States to consider the development of the Internet and its economic, political and cultural effects in our own countries and throughout the world.

This commitment from the Heads of State and Government shows that the time has come to engage in genuine dialogue with the main world players in the information and communication technologies sector, particularly in order to strengthen the Internet’s major contribution to economic growth.

It is for this reason that I have decided to organise the “e-G8 Forum” in Paris on 24-25 May. Over these two days, the CEOs and the leaders of the Internet’s most leading companies and organisations will work together before sharing their proposals with the Heads of State and Government in Deauville.

Participants in the e-G8 Forum will be able to exchange ideas about cutting-edge products and services. They will also be able to discuss the challenges and opportunities which they believe relevant to the future of the Internet, offering their opinions on a wide range of issues, including for example human rights, intellectual property and technological investment.

Given the key role you play in the field of information technology, as an entrepreneur and a leader, I would be honoured if you could attend this unprecedented conference.

Nicolas SARKOZY

 

The Fact Sheet

 

e-G8 Forum
The Internet: Accelerating Growth
Paris, May 24-25, 2011

The French President Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy, as current President of the Group of Eight countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – is convening an extraordinary invitation-only meeting of the best and the brightest technology leaders from the G8 and the rest of the world. He wishes to include in the G8 Summit agenda the possibilities opened up by the Internet and to enable the e-G8 Forum to contribute their viewpoint and reflections to the discussions of the Heads of State.

The e-G8 Forum will be held in Paris on May 24-25, immediately preceding the G8 Heads of State and Government Summit in Deauville on May 26-27.

The e-G8 Forum is designed to inform the G8 discussion and encourage dialogue between governments and global media/technology companies. This year, for the first time ever, the Internet’s role in society and the economy will be formally on the G8 Summit agenda. Although invited on the initiative of the President of the French Republic, the stakeholders in the digital economy will be free to choose their topics, agenda, content and conclusions which will be submitted to the discussion of the Heads of State. That is why President Sarkozy wishes the e-G8 Forum to be a private organization, placed under the presidency of Maurice Lévy, Chairman & CEO of Publicis Groupe.

e-G8 Forum Theme: The Internet: Accelerating Growth. The reach and impact of the Internet, fast-evolving technology and the roll-out of broadband across the world have been huge contributors to economic growth, job creation, education and empowerment in the last decade – and this digital ecosystem will be critically important in accelerating global growth in coming years.

Location: Stunning custom-built forum space in the Tuileries gardens, located between the Musée du Louvre and Place de la Concorde in the center of Paris.

Participants: Strictly by personal invitation only, the e-G8 Forum’s explicit goal is to gather leading global players of the digital ecosystem. This high-level community includes CEOs, technologists, entrepreneurs, and industry experts. Forum participants are invited to an extraordinary e-G8 Forum Dinner at the Louvre Museum on Tuesday May 24.

Program: Combining plenary sessions, town hall discussions and private dialogue, the e-G8 Forum will include discussions on economic growth, social issues such as human rights, intellectual property protection and privacy, and the Internet of the future.

Ideas from the e-G8 Forum will be presented at the G8 Summit, for the first time giving a voice to leading companies investing in technology and the future of the Internet.

Organization: President Sarkozy has asked Maurice Lévy, Chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe, to organize the e-G8 Forum.

Press: For press accreditation presse-eg8forum@publicislive.com

General Information: info-eg8forum@publicislive.com

Website: www.eg8forum.com

 

 

The Agenda

 

e-G8 Forum
The Internet: Accelerating Growth
Pre-program

 

MONDAY 23 MAY
17h00 – 21h00: Welcome and Registration -Tuileries Gardens

TUESDAY 24 MAY

08h30 – 10h00: Registration, coffee and networking

10h00 – 10h10: Welcome & Introduction, Maurice Lévy, Chairman & CEO, Publicis Groupe, Chairman of the e-G8 Forum

10h10 – 10h45: Opening Keynote
Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France, current President of the G8
10h45 – 11h00: Q&A with President Sarkozy

11h00 – 12h00: Plenary I
“Silicon Power: The Internet & Economic Growth”
Information Technology and the entire digital ecosystem have been a powerful creator of jobs and wealth around the world. How to ensure this continues?

12h00 – 13h00: Plenary II
“Rewiring Societies” The Internet has empowered people around the world, most recently and most spectacularly in the Middle East, but also in many other instances. Are we seeing the emergence of a new society: more open, transparent and free?

13h00 – 14h30: Lunch

14h30 – 15h30: Plenary III
“Future of the Net: What Next?”
Broadband, booming data, video, the explosion of cloud computing, storage: the financing of infrastructures, how value is created and shared

15h30 – 16h00: Coffee break and networking
16h00 – 17h00: Content and intellectual property
17h00 – 18h00: Conversations with legendary figures of the Internet
20h00 – 22h30: e-G8 Dinner at the Louvre Museum and private visits of the museum

WEDNESDAY 25 MAY
08h00 – 09h00: Continental breakfast and networking

09h00 – 10:00: Plenary I
“Innovation and Financing”
The impact of new technologies on strategies for innovation and R&D What are the best strategies for creating innovative ecosystems and clusters?

10h00 – 10h30: Coffee break and networking

10h30 – 12h00: Parallel Workshops I
1. Fostering Innovation and Education
2. The impact of the digital revolution on small and medium-sized businesses
3. Entertainment and Culture in the Digital Age

12h00 – 13h00: Parallel Workshops II
1. Mobile Internet: how mobile is transforming commerce
2. Protection of privacy and the youth
3. The Net and the Media: the future of media in a digital society

13h00 – 14h30: Lunch

14h30 – 15h30: Parallel Workshops III
1. In the Social Media Age: the impact on society
2. Creativity and entrepreneurship on the Net
3. Trust: Creating and maintaining trust in a world of booming data

15h30 – 16h00: Coffee break

16h00 – 17h30: Plenary II
“Start-up Nations: the best and the brightest start-ups”

17h30 – 18h30: Closing Plenary of the e-G8 Forum

 

My Thoughts and Questions

I am honored to be among the invitees and do plan on participating. However, that said, I also have a number of thoughts and questions about this gathering, its purpose, and the results that may or may not come from it. I am certainly hopeful and optimistic – but I also think an event of this nature will face a number of challenges.

First of all, this event is being organized rather suddenly, with very little advance-notice to potential attendees. So my first question is, who will actually be going? I am definitely attending, but I’m curious to know who the other attendees will be?

In searching Twitter for the terms  “eg8“, “e-G8,” “#eg8“, “#e-G8” I have found a few others, such as Leo Laporte and Jimmy Wales who have also announced their intention to attend. If you are attending, please announce it on Twitter at the hashtag #eg8 so we all can see who the delegates will be.

My second question is about the motivation for the event. Why is President Sarkozy organizing this event at this time? Is there a political agenda at work here, or is this simply to bring one of the major drivers of global society and economics to the table at the G8 level for the first time? Perhaps both are factors in the decision to do this?

It is also interesting to note that President Sarkozy, along with the other G-8 leaders, have generally supported polices which are not always in the best-interests of the people who use the Internet – for example, around issues of privacy, freedom of speech, taxation, and net neutrality.

Is this event designed to truly bring all perspectives together in order to craft new policies, or to build support for policies that have largely already been set by the G-8 nations?

Will this event result in helping Big Corporations and Big Governments be even Bigger, or will it also provide a voice to the people, the citizens of the Web? Will the delegates be thinking about themselves and their companies, or will they try to bring larger issues to the table?

Another question is what can be achieved in only two-days, especially when dealing with multiple very different cultures with widely divergent views about privacy, free speech, taxation, etc? I think this will be perhaps the main challenge of this gathering: will it be possible to bridge these differences and have not only a meaningful dialogue, but one that results in useful and new ideas and proposals for the G8 leaders to consider?

I am skeptical that it will be possible to reach any sort of agreement on such complex and controversial issues in a short timeframe, however, perhaps it will be possible for the delegates to come up with recommendations for Internet-related issues that require urgent attention from the G8 leaders, at least.

Another useful output of this event could be a new network of relationships that connect a broad cross-section of Internet leaders with government leaders at a very high level. The new relationships and communication channels that result from this could perhaps become very important in influencing and shaping policy in the future. In the end, this may be one of the key long-term benefits of this gathering.

 

What Should We Discuss?

As a participant in the e-G8, I hope I can contribute something useful, and hopefully novel. I presume many of the other delegates will be from giant corporations, and will have viewpoints that at least to some extent reflect the goals of those corporations. In my case, I am not affiliated with any giant corporation presently; I work mainly with small, emerging technology startups.

At an event of this nature, I hope I can help to represent the viewpoint of the startup community, entrepreneurs, innovators, angel investors, incubators, and consumers on the Web. This is a perspective that is often drowned out in gatherings of leaders of multibillion dollar corporations and large governments — yet it is also one that is extremely valuable, since the technology startup sector is actually a key engine of new jobs, economic development, innovation, and growth.

I think it is of vital importance to find ways to transplant the DNA of Silicon Valley into other regions around the world, so that this kind of new economic opportunity and growth spreads and benefits more regions.

Another area that I focus on is the future of the Internet. Where is it going, and what is needed to get it there in the optimal way?

There are many issues to discuss around this ranging from identity, privacy, open standards, open-source software, and net neutrality (which should be re-branded as “net equality”), to who owns personal information, copyright law, software patent law reform, accessibility, and infrastructure – particularly infrastructure that can’t be easily controlled or compromised by any one party.

I’ve been involved with the Internet since the 1980’s, and helped to pioneer the early days of the Web, as well as the Semantic Web, “Web 3.0” and new initiatives around the real-time Web. These technology movements have captivated me with their potential for increasing human freedom and capabilities. But there is equally great potential to use them to limit freedom and control humanity even more.

What concerns me most today is that more power over the Internet is falling into fewer hands, and this trend is continuing with the eager support of big corporations and governments.

What is of greatest importance, for the people of the world, is to find new ways to decentralize and democratize the key capabilities of the Internet (such as bandwidth, messaging infrastructures, identity infrastructures, privacy systems, data storage, on-ramps, and even the content of the Web) and to protect them from attempts to control them, co-opt them, or limit them.

If we are not extremely careful and diligent in our efforts to protect the open Internet from commercial and government interests, I think it is likely that we will end up building an Internet that is a kind of prison instead of a launchpad for greater levels of human evolution.

Here is just one example of what I’m worried about – Facebook is now considering limiting free speech in order to placate governments around the world. But Facebook isn’t alone in this – all the large global online services are having to balance complex opposing concerns – and too often in these situations, money wins out over human rights.

Social networks are the cultural nervous systems of our new 21st century civilization. The problem is, they are being created and governed by commercial interests, not by their constituents.

If commercial social networks truly do become the fabric of our new societies, what happens to our civilization? It becomes privatized and controlled by commercial interests, not elected governments. Is that a world you want to live in?

The Internet is a new global resource, which, like the oceans, the atmosphere and the rainforests, must be protected in order to be of greatest benefit. It is something which every human should be able to share in, equally, and in fact, equal access to the Internet may soon become necessary in order to participate equally in any society or government.

One thought along these lines that I have been exploring recently: Do Internet users need to be protected with certain guaranteed basic rights and freedoms in their online lives? And should we all agree to a new online social contract, or even laws, for what kinds of behavior are acceptable? Is it time for these kinds of agreements to be formed?

Civil rights, standards of behavior and laws, are necessary for any society to function, and our emerging global online society is no exception. Perhaps it is time to propose the first Internet Bill of Rights, and a standard Internet Code of Conduct?

Of course, such initiatives are risky to propose – they could easily backfire and instead of promoting freedom they could become new means of limiting freedom. So I do not believe these policies should be created in a vacuum – I think they would require broad participation and comment from the entire community of Internet constituents. I do however think it is possible that such initiatives could be very valuable in the future.

 

What Do You Think?

These are just a few preliminary thoughts, but really I am more interested in hearing from you — what issues should the e-G8 be thinking about? What issues should we be proposing to the G8 leaders? And do you have any specific proposals to offer?

I am very interested in hearing from you, as I am sure the other e-G8 attendees are as well. Please add your thoughts in the comments below so we can see what you suggest and are thinking about. I look forward to being able to represent a broad perspective at this event.

Sincerely,

Nova Spivack
novaspivack.com

 

What's After the Real Time Web?

In typical Web-industry style we’re all focused minutely on the leading trend-of-the-year, the real-time Web. But in this obsession we have become a bit myopic. The real-time Web, or what some of us call “The Stream,” is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end. So what will it enable, where is it headed, and what’s it going to look like when we look back at this trend in 10 or 20 years?

In the next 10 years, The Stream is going to go through two big phases, focused on two problems, as it evolves:

  1. Web Attention Deficit Disorder. The first problem with the real-time Web that is becoming increasingly evident is that it has a bad case of ADD. There is so much information streaming in from so many places at once that it’s simply impossible to focus on anything for very long, and a lot of important things are missed in the chaos. The first generation of tools for the Stream are going to need to address this problem.
  2. Web Intention Deficit Disorder. The second problem with the real-time Web will emerge after we have made some real headway in solving Web attention deficit disorder. This second problem is about how to get large numbers of people to focus their intention not just their attention. It’s not just difficult to get people to notice something, it’s even more difficult to get them to do something. Attending to something is simply noticing it. Intending to do something is actually taking action, expending some energy or effort to do something. Intending is a lot more expensive, cognitively speaking, than merely attending. The power of collective intention is literally what changes the world, but we don’t have the tools to direct it yet.

The Stream is not the only big trend taking place right now. In fact, it’s just a strand that is being braided together with several other trends, as part of a larger pattern. Here are some of the other strands I’m tracking:

  • Messaging. The real-time Web aka The Stream is really about messaging in essence. It’s a subset of the global trend towards building a better messaging layer for the Web. Multiple forms of messaging are emerging, from the publish-and-subscribe nature of Twitter and RSS, to things like Google Wave, Pubsubhubub, and broadcast style messaging or multicasting via screencast, conferencing and media streaming and events in virtual worlds. The effect of these tools is that the speed and interactivity of the Web are increasing — the Web is getting faster. Information spreads more virally, more rapidly — in other words, “memes” (which we can think of as collective thoughts) are getting more sophisticated and gaining more mobility.
  • Semantics. The Web becomes more like a database. The resolution of search, ad targeting, and publishing increases. In other words, it’s a higher-resolution Web. Search will be able to target not just keywords but specific meaning. For example, you will be able to search precisely for products or content that meet certain constraints. Multiple approaches from natural language search to the metadata of the Semantic Web will contribute to increased semantic understanding and representation of the Web.
  • Attenuation. As information moves faster, and our networks get broader, information overload gets worse in multiple dimensions. This creates a need for tools to help people filter the firehose. Filtering in its essence is a process of attenuation — a way to focus attention more efficiently on signal versus noise. Broadly speaking there are many forms of filtering from automated filtering, to social filtering, to personalization, but they all come down to helping someone focus their finite attention more efficiently on the things they care about most.
  • The WebOS.  As cloud computing resources, mashups, open linked data, and open API’s proliferate, a new level of aggregator is emerging. These aggregators may focus on one of these areas or may cut across them. Ultimately they are the beginning of true cross-service WebOS’s. I predict this is going to be a big trend in the future — for example instead of writing Web apps directly to various data and API’s in dozens of places, just write to a single WebOS aggregator that acts as middleware between your app and all these choices. It’s much less complicated for developers. The winning WebOS is probably not going to come from Google, Microsoft or Amazon — rather it will probably come from someone neutral, with the best interests of developers as the primary goal.
  • Decentralization. As the semantics of the Web get richer, and the WebOS really emerges it will finally be possible for applications to leverage federated, Web-scale computing. This is when intelligent agents will actually emerge and be practical. By this time the Web will be far too vast and complex and rapidly changing for any centralized system to index and search it. Only massively federated swarms of intelligent agents, or extremely dynamic distributed computing tools, that can spread around the Web as they work, will be able to keep up with the Web.
  • Socialization. Our interactions and activities on the Web are increasingly socially networked, whether individual, group or involving large networks or crowds. Content is both shared and discovered socially through our circles of friends and contacts. In addition, new technologies like Google Social Search enable search results to be filtered by social distance or social relevancy. In other words, things that people you follow like get higher visibility in your search results. Socialization is a trend towards making previously non-social activities more social, and towards making already-social activities more efficient and broader. Ultimately this process leads to wider collaboration and higher levels of collective intelligence.
  • Augmentation. Increasingly we will see a trend towards augmenting things with other things. For example, augmenting a Web page or data set with links or notes from another Web page or data set. Or augmenting reality by superimposing video and data onto a live video image on a mobile phone. Or augmenting our bodies with direct connections to computers and the Web.

If these are all strands in a larger pattern, then what is the megatrend they are all contributing to? I think ultimately it’s collective intelligence — not just of humans, but also our computing systems, working in concert.

Collective Intelligence

I think that these trends are all combining, and going real-time. Effectively what we’re seeing is the evolution of a global collective mind, a theme I keep coming back to again and again. This collective mind is not just comprised of humans, but also of software and computers and information, all interlinked into one unimaginably complex system: A system that senses the universe and itself, that thinks, feels, and does things, on a planetary scale. And as humanity spreads out around the solar system and eventually the galaxy, this system will spread as well, and at times splinter and reproduce.

But that’s in the very distant future still. In the nearer term — the next 100 years or so — we’re going to go through some enormous changes. As the world becomes increasingly networked and social the way collective thinking and decision making take place is going to be radically restructured.

Social Evolution

Existing and established social, political and economic structures are going to either evolve or be overturned and replaced. Everything from the way news and entertainment are created and consumed, to how companies, cities and governments are managed will change radically. Top-down beaurocratic control systems are simply not going to be able to keep up or function effectively in this new world of distributed, omnidirectional collective intelligence.

Physical Evolution

As humanity and our Web of information and computatoins begins to function as a single organism, we will evolve literally, into a new species: Whatever is after the homo sapien. The environment we will live in will be a constantly changing sea of collective thought in which nothing and nobody will be isolated. We will be more interdependent than ever before. Interdependence leads to symbiosis, and eventually to the loss of generality and increasing specialization. As each of us is able to draw on the collective mind, the global brain, there may be less pressure on us to do things on our own that used to be solitary. What changes to our bodies, minds and organizations may result from these selective evolutionary pressures? I think we’ll see several, over multi-thousand year timescales, or perhaps faster if we start to genetically engineer ourselves:

  • Individual brains will get less good at things like memorization and recall, calculation, reasoning, and long-term planning and action.
  • Individual brains will get better at multi-tasking, information filtering, trend detection, and social communication. The parts of the nervous system involved in processing live information will increase disproportionately to other parts.
  • Our bodies may actually improve in certain areas. We will become more, not less, mobile, as computation and the Web become increasingly embedded into our surroundings, and into augmented views of our environments. This may cause our bodies to get into better health and shape since we will be less sedentary, less at our desks, less in front of TV’s. We’ll be moving around in the world, connected to everything and everyone no matter where we are. Physical strength will probably decrease overall as we will need to do less manual labor of any kind.

These are just some of the changes that are likely to occur as a result of the things we’re working on today. The Web and the emerging Real-Time Web are just a prelude of things to come.

The Next Generation of Web Search — Search 3.0

The next generation of Web search is coming sooner than expected. And with it we will see several shifts in the way people search, and the way major search engines provide search functionality to consumers.

Web 1.0, the first decade of the Web (1989 – 1999), was characterized by a distinctly desktop-like search paradigm. The overriding idea was that the Web is a collection of documents, not unlike the folder tree on the desktop, that must be searched and ranked hierarchically. Relevancy was considered to be how closely a document matched a given query string.

Web 2.0, the second decade of the Web (1999 – 2009), ushered in the beginnings of a shift towards social search. In particular blogging tools, social bookmarking tools, social networks, social media sites, and microblogging services began to organize the Web around people and their relationships. This added the beginnings of a primitive “web of trust” to the search repertoire, enabling search engines to begin to take the social value of content (as evidences by discussions, ratings, sharing, linking, referrals, etc.) as an additional measurment in the relevancy equation. Those items which were both most relevant on a keyword level, and most relevant in the social graph (closer and/or more popular in the graph), were considered to be more relevant. Thus results could be ranked according to their social value — how many people in the community liked them and current activity level — as
well as by semantic relevancy measures.

In the coming third decade of the Web, Web 3.0 (2009 – 2019), there will be another shift in the search paradigm. This is a shift to from the past to the present, and from the social to the personal.

Established search engines like Google rank results primarily by keyword (semantic) relevancy. Social search engines rank results primarily by activity and social value (Digg, Twine 1.0, etc.). But the new search engines of the Web 3.0 era will also take into account two additional factors when determining relevancy: timeliness, and personalization.

Google returns the same results for everyone. But why should that be the case? In fact, when two different people search for the same information, they may want to get very different kinds of results. Someone who is a novice in a field may want beginner-level information to rank higher in the results than someone who is an expert. There may be a desire to emphasize things that are novel over things that have been seen before, or that have happened in the past — the more timely something is the more relevant it may be as well.

These two themes — present and personal — will define the next great search experience.

To accomplish this, we need to make progress on a number of fronts.

First of all, search engines need better ways to understand what content is, without having to do extensive computation. The best solution for this is to utilize metadata and the methods of the emerging semantic web.

Metadata reduces the need for computation in order to determine what content is about — it makes that explicit and machine-understandable. To the extent that machine-understandable metadata is added or generated for the Web, it will become more precisely searchable and productive for searchers.

This applies especially to the area of the real-time Web, where for example short “tweets” of content contain very little context to support good natural-language processing. There a little metadata can go a long way. In addition, of course metadata makes a dramatic difference in search of the larger non-real-time Web as well.

In addition to metadata, search engines need to modify their algorithms to be more personalized. Instead of a “one-size fits all” ranking for each query, the ranking may differ for different people depending on their varying interests and search histories.

Finally, to provide better search of the present, search has to become more realtime. To this end, rankings need to be developed that surface not only what just happened now, but what happened recently and is also trending upwards and/or of note. Realtime search has to be more than merely listing search results chronologically. There must be effective ways to filter the noise and surface what’s most important effectively. Social graph analysis is a key tool for doing this, but in
addition, powerful statistical analysis and new visualizations may also be required to make a compelling experience.

Nowism — A Theme for the New Era?

DRAFT 1 — A Work in Progress

Introduction

Here’s an idea I’ve been thinking about: it’s a concept for a new philosophy, or perhaps just a name for a grassroots philosophy that seems to be emerging on its own. It’s called “Nowism.” The view that now is what’s most important, because now is where one’s life actually happens.

Certainly we have all heard terms like Ram Das’ famous, “Be here now” and we may be familiar with the writings of Eckhart Tolle and his “Power of Now” and others. In addition there was the “Me generation” and the more recent idea of “living in the now.” On the Web there is also now a growing shift towards real-time, what I call the Stream.

These are all examples of the emergence of this trend. But I think these are just the beginnings of this movement — a movement towards a subtle but major shift in the orientation of our civilization’s collective attention. This is a shift towards the now, in every dimension of our lives. Our personal lives, professional lives, in business, in government, in technology, and even in religion and spirituality.

I have a hypothesis that this philosophy — this worldview that the “now” is more important than the past or the future, may come to characterize this new century we are embarking on. If this is true, then it will have profound effects on the direction we go in as a civilization.

It does appear that the world is becoming increasingly now-oriented; more real-time, high-resolution, high-bandwidth. The present moment, the now, is getting increasingly flooded with fast-moving and information-rich streams of content and communication.

As this happens we are increasingly focusing our energy on keeping up with, managing, and making sense of, the now. The now is also effectively getting shorter — in that more happens in less time, making the basic clockrate of the now effectively faster. I’ve written about this elsewhere.

Given that the shift to a civilization that is obsessively focused on the now is occurring, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether this will gradually penetrate into the underlying metaphors and worldviews of coming generations, and how it might manifest as differences from our present-day mindsets.

How might people who live more in the now differ from those who paid more attention to the past, or the future? For example, I would assert that the world in and before the 19th century was focused more on the past than the now or the future. The 20th century was characterized by a shift to focus more on the future than the past or the now. The 21st century will be characterized by a shift in focus onto the now, and away from the past and the future.

How might people who live more in the now think about themselves and the world in coming decades. What are the implications for consumers, marketers, strategists, policymakers, educators?

With this in mind, I’ve attempted to write up what I believe might be the start of a summary of what this emerging worldview of “Nowism” might be like.

It has implications on several levels: social, economic, political, and spiritual.

Nowism Defined

Like Buddhism, Taoism, and other “isms,” Nowism is a view on the nature of reality, with implications for how to live one’s life and how to interpret and relate to the world and other people.

Simply put: Nowism is the philosophy that the span of experience called “now” is fundamental. In other words there is nothing other than now. Life happens in the now. The now is what matters most.

Nowism does not claim to be mutually exclusive with any other religion. It merely claims that all other religions are contained within it’s scope — they, like everything else, take place exclusively within the now, not outside it. In that respect the now, in its actual nature, is fundamentally greater than any other conceivable philosophical or religious system, including even Nowism itself.

Risks of Unawakened Nowism

Nowism is in some ways potentially short-sighted in that there is less emphasis on planning for the future and correspondingly more emphasis on living the present as fully as possible. Instead of making decisions with their effects in the future foremost in mind, the focus is on making the optimal immediate decisions in the context of the present. However, what is optimal in the present may not be optimalover longer spans of time and space.

What may be optimal in the now of a particular individual may not at all be optimal in the nows of other individuals. Nowism can therefore lead to extremely selfish behavior that actually harms others, or it can lead to extremely generous behavior on a scale that far transcends the individual, if one strives to widen their own experience of the now sufficiently.

Very few individuals will ever do the necessary work to develop themselves to the point where their actual experience of now is dramatically wider than average. It is however possible to do this, while quite rare. Such individuals are capable of living exclusively in the now while still always acting with the long-term benefit of both themselves all other beings in mind.

The vast majority of people however will tend towards a more limited and destructive form of Nowism, in which they get lost in deeper forms of consumerism, content and media immersion, hedonism, and conceptualization. Rather than being freed by the now, they will be increasingly imprisoned by it.

This lower form of Nowism — what might be called unawakened Nowism — is characterized by an intense focus on immediate self-gratification, without concern or a sense of responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions on oneself or others in the future. This kind of living in the moment, while potentially extremely fun, tends to end badly for most people. Fortunately most people outgrow this tendency towards extremely unawakened Nowism after graduating college and/or entering the workforce.

Abandoning extremely unawakened Nowist lifestyles doesn’t necessarily result in one realizing any form of awakened Nowism. One might simply remain in a kind of dormant state, sleepwalking through life, not really living fully in the present, not fully experiencing the present in all its potential. To reach this level of higher Nowism, or advanced Nowism, one must either have a direct spontaneous experience of awakening to the deeper qualities of the now, or one must study, practice and work with teachers and friends who can help them to reach such a direct experience of the now.

Benefits of Awakened Nowism: Spiritual and Metaphysical Implications of Nowist Philosophy

In the 21st Century, I believe Nowism may actually become an emerging movement. With it there will come a new conception of the self, and of the divine. The self will be realized to be simultaneously more empty and much vaster than was previously thought. The divine will be understood more directly and with less conceptualization. More people will have spiritual realization this way, because in this more direct approach there is less conceptual material to get caught up in. The experience of now is simply left as it is — as direct and unmediated, unfettered, and unadulterated as possible.

This is a new kind of spirituality perhaps. One in which there is less personification of the divine, and less use of the concept of a personified deity as an excuse or justification for various worldy actions (like wars and laws, for example).

Concepts about the nature of divinity have been used by humans for millenia as tools for various good and bad purposes. But in Nowism, these concepts are completely abandoned. This also means abandoning the notion that there is or is not a divine nature at the core of reality, and each one of us. Nowists do not get caught up in such unresolvable debates. However, at the same time, Nowists do strive for a direct realization of the now — one that is as unmediated and nonconceptual as possible — and that direct realization is considered to BE thedivine nature itself.

Nowism does not assert that nothing exists or that nothing matters. Such views are nihilism not Nowism. Nowism does not assert that what happens is caused or uncaused — such views are those of the materialists and the idealists, not Nowism. Instead Nowism asserts the principles of dependent origination, in which cause and-effect appears to take place, even though it is an illusory process and does not truly exist. On the basis of a relative-level cause-effect process, an ethical system can be founded which seeks to optimize happiness and minimize unhappiness for the greatest number of beings, by adjusting ones actions so as to create causes that lead to increasingly happy effects for oneself and others, increasingly often. Thus the view of Nowism does not lead to hedonism — in fact, anyone who makes a careful study of the now will reach the conclusion that cause and effect operates unfailingly and therefore is a key tool for optimizing happiness in the now.

Advanced Nowists don’t ignore cause-and-effect, in fact quite the contrary: they pay increasingly close attention to cuase-and-effect and their particular actions. The natural result is that they begin to live a life that is both happier and that leads to more happiness for all other beings — at least this is the goal and example of the best-case. The fact that cause-and-effect is in operation, even though it is notfundamentally real, is the root of Nowist ethics. It is precisely the same as the Buddhist conception of the identity of emptiness and dependent-origination.

Numerous principles follow from the core beliefs of Nowism. They include practical guidance for living ones life with a minimum of unnecessary suffering (of oneself as well as others), further principles concerning the nature of reality and the mind, and advanced techniques and principles for reaching greater realizations of the now.

As to the nature of what is taking place right now: from the Nowist perspective, it is beyond concepts, for all concepts, like everything else, appear and disappear like visions or mirages, without ever truly-existing. This corresponds precisely to the Buddhist conception of emptiness.

The scope of the now is unlimited, however for the uninitiated the now is usually considered to be limited to the personal present experience of the individual. Nowist adepts, on the other hand, assert that the scope of the now may be modified (narrowed or widened) through various exercises including meditation, prayer, intense physical activity, art, dance and ritual, drugs, chanting, fasting, etc.

Narrowing the scope of the now is akin to reducing the resolution of present experience. Widening the scope is akin to increasing the resolution. A narrower now is a smaller experience, with less information content. A wider now is a larger experience, with more information content.

Within the context of realizing that now is all there is, one explores carefully and discovers that now does not contain anything findable (such as a self, other, or any entity or fundamental basis for any objective or subjective phenomenon, let alone any nature that could be called “nowness” or the now itself).

In short the now is totally devoid of anything findable whatsoever, although sensory phenomena do continue to appear to arise within it unceasingly. Such phenomena, and the sensory apparatus, body, brain, mind and any conception of self that arises in reaction to them, are all merely illusion-like appearances with no objectively-findable ultimate, fundamental, or independent existence.

This state is not unlike the analogy of a dream in which oneself and all the other places and characters are all equally illusory, or of a completely immersive virtual reality experience that is so convincing one forgets it isn’t real.

Nowism does not assert a divine being or deity, although it also is not mutually exclusive with the existence of one or more such beings. However all such beings are considered to be no more real than any other illusory appearance, such as the appearances of sentient beings, planets, stars, fundamental particles, etc. Any phenomena — whether natural or supernatural — are equally empty of any independent true existince. They are all illusory in nature.

However, Nowists do assert that the nature of the now itself, while completely empty, is in fact the nature of consciousness and what we call life. It cannot be computed, simulated or modeled in an information system, program, machine, or representation of any kind. Any such attempts to represent the now are merely phenomena appearing within the now, not the now itself. The now is fundamentally transcendental in this respect.

The now is not limited to any particular region in space or time, let alone to any individual being’s mind. There is no way to assert there is a single now, or many nows, for no nows are actually findable.

The now is the gap between the past and the future, however, when searched for it cannot really be found, nor can the past or future be found. The past is gone, the future hasn’t happened yet, and the now is infinite, constantly changing, and ungraspable. The entire space-time continuum is in fact within a total all-embracing now, the cosmically extended now that is beyond the limited personalized scope of now we presently think we have. Through practice this can be gradually glimpsed and experienced to greater degrees.

As the now is explored to greater depths, one begins to find that it has astonishing implications. Simultaneously much of the Zen literature — especially the koans — starts to make sense at last.

While Nowism could be said to be a branch of Buddhism, I would actually say it might be the other way arond. Nowism is really the most fundamental, pure, philosophy — stripped of all cultural baggage and historical concepts, and retaining only what is absolutely essential.

Video: My Talk on The Future of Libraries — "Library 3.0"

If you are interested in semantics, taxonomies, education, information overload and how libraries are evolving, you may enjoy this video of my talk on the Semantic Web and the Future of Libraries at the OCLC Symposium at the American Library Association Midwinter 2009 Conference. This event focused around a dialogue between David Weinberger and myself, moderated by Roy Tennant. We were forutnate to have an audience of about 500 very vocal library directors in the audience and it was an intensive day of thinking together. Thanks to the folks at OCLC for a terrific and really engaging event!

Watch My best Talk: The Global Brain is Coming

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!

Peace in the Middle East: Could Alternative Energy Be the Solution?

I have been thinking about the situation in the Middle East and also the rise of oil prices, peak oil, and the problem of a world economy based on energy scarcity rather than abundance. There is, I believe, a way to solve the problems in the Middle East, and the energy problems facing the world, at the same time. But it requires thinking “outside the box.”

Middle Eastern nations must take the lead in freeing the world from dependence on their oil. This is not only their best strategy for the future of their nations and their people, but also it is what will ultimately be best for the region and the whole world.

It is inevitable that someone is going to invent a new technology that frees the world from dependence on fossil fuels. When that happens all oil empires will suddenly collapse. Far-sighted, visionary leaders in oil-producing nations must ensure that their nations are in position to lead the coming non-fossil-fuel energy revolution. This is the wisdom of “cannibalize yourself before someone else does.”

Middle Eastern nations should invest more heavily than any other nations in inventing and supplying new alternative energy technologies. For example: hydrogen, solar, biofuels, zero point energy, magnetic power, and the many new emerging alternatives to fossil fuels. This is a huge opportunity for the Middle East not only for economic reasons, but also because it may just be the key to bringing about long-term sustainable peace in the region.

There is a finite supply of oil in the Middle East — the game will and must eventually end. Are Middle Eastern nations thinking far enough ahead about this or not? There is a tremendous opportunity for them if they can take the initiative on this front and there is an equally tremendous risk if they do not. If they do not have a major stake in whatever comes after fossil fuels, they will be left with nothing when whatever is next inevitably happens (which might be very soon).

Any Middle Eastern leader who is not thinking very seriously about this issue right now is selling their people short. I sincerely advise them to make this a major focus going forward. Not only will this help them to improve quality of life for their people now and in the future, but it is the best way to help bring about world peace. The Middle East has the potential to lead a huge and lucrative global energy Renaissance. All it takes is vision and courage to push the frontier and to think outside of the box.

Continue reading

My Burma Meme Spreads to 17,000 Web Pages in just one week!

I’ve been tracking the progress of my Burma protest meme. In just under one week it has spread to almost 17,000 web pages and it continues to grow. (For the latest number, click here). It’s great to see the blogosphere pick this up, and I’m glad to be able to do something to help raise awareness of this important human rights issue.

This meme is also an example of an interesting new way to spread content on the Web — whether for a protest or an ad or any other kind of announcement. It’s kind of like a chain letter, but via weblogs. There are many different ways to structure these memes with varying levels of virality and benefit to participants. For some earlier work I’ve done on meme propagation on the Web see my GoMeme experiments from a few years ago. In those experiments I created a series of memes that spread widely through the blogosphere, based on different viral messages, surveys, and benefits to participants. Other people then tracked the statistics of the memes as they spread. It turned out to be a very interesting study of superdistribution of content along social networks.

Help the People of Burma — Post this Meme on Your Blog!

Note: This is a new kind of online protest that uses blogs to spread a petition globally. To participate, just add your blog by following the instructions in this blog post.

This not an issue of partisan politics, this is an issue of basic human rights and democracy. Please help to prevent a human tragedy in Burma by adding your blog and asking others to do the same.

By passing this meme on through the blogosphere hopefully we can generate more awareness and avert a serious tragedy. As concerned world-citizens this something we bloggers can do to help.

How to participate:

1. Copy this entire post to your blog, including this special number: 1081081081234

2. After a few days, you can search Google for the number 1081081081234 to find all blogs that are participating in this protest and petition. Note: Google indexes blogs at different rates, so it could take longer for your blog to show up in the results. Also note — if you want an accurate count of the number of blogs that joined this petition, make sure you scroll to the bottom of the Google results and click to view results that were omitted because they were similar.

3. If you know how to add tags to your blog posts, add the Technorati tag 1081081081234 to your post as well. This will make your post findable sooner in Technorati.

THE SITUATION IN BURMA AND WHY IT MATTERS TO ALL OF US

There is no press freedom in Burma and the government has started turning off the Internet and other means of communication, so it is difficult to get news out. Individuals on the ground have been sending their day-by-day reports to the BBC, and they are heartbreaking. I encourage you to read these accounts to see for yourself what is really going on in Burma. Please include this link in your own blog post.

The situation in Burma is increasingly dangerous. Hundreds of thousands of unarmed peaceful protesters, including monks and nuns, are risking their lives to march for democracy against an unpopular but well-armed military dictatorship that will stop at nothing to continue its repressive rule. While the generals in power and their families are literally dripping in gold and diamonds, the people of Burma are impoverished, deprived of basic human rights, cut off from the rest of the world, and increasingly under threat of violence.

This week the people of Burma have risen up collectively in the largest public demonstrations against the ruling Junta in decades. It’s an amazing show of bravery, decency, and democracy in action. But although these protests are peaceful, the military rulers are starting to crack down with violence. Already there have been at least several reported deaths, and hundreds of critical injuries from soldiers beating unarmed civilians to the point of death.

The actual fatalities and injuries are probably far worse, but the only news we have is coming from individuals who are sneaking reports past the authorities. Unfortunately it looks like a large-scale blood-bath may ensue — and the victims will be mostly women, children, the elderly and unarmed monks and nuns.

Contrary to what the Burmese, Chinese and Russian governments have stated, this is not merely a local internal political issue, it is an issue of global importance and it affects the global community. As concerned citizens, we cannot allow any government anywhere in the world to use its military to attack and kill peacefully demonstrating, unarmed citizens.

In this modern day and age violence against unarmed civilians is unacceptable and if it is allowed to happen, without serious consequences for the perpetrators, it creates a precedent for it to happen again somewhere else.
If we want a more peaceful world, it is up to each of us to make a personal stand on these fundamental issues whenever they arise.

Please join me in calling on the Burmese government to negotiate peacefully with its citizens, and on China to intervene to prevent further violence. And please help to raise awareness of the developing situation in Burma so that hopefully we can avert a large-scale human disaster there.

Dangerous Situation in Burma Developing

The nation of Myanamar (Burma) is currently ruled by a repressive and corrupt military dictatorship. Past attempts to bring about democracy have met with violent crackdowns by the government, usually against unarmed civilians. In one past incident, approximately 3000 protesters were killed by the military.

Now a new situation is developing that could rapidly lead to mass civilian casualties, if the international community does not intervene in time. Led by thousands of Buddhist monks, approximately 100,000 Burmese civilians marched to demonstrate their support for democracy in Burma.

So far the military has not reacted with violence, but there are growing warning signs that this may happen soon. The international community, and all people who believe in freedom, should stand up and support the brave citizens of Burma who are putting their lives at risk for the principle of democracy, a principle which unfortunately is eroding worldwide according to a recent study.

Reverse Anthropology: Native Tribe Visits UK to Study Brits

Check out this fascinating article about a new show on the BBC:

ne bright morning in St James’s Park and a stream of tourists
approaches Buckingham Palace, where trumpets will shortly herald the
Changing of the Guard. In the middle of the crowd walk five very short,
very odd-looking men. They carry camcorders, gesticulate wildly, and
talk in a language no one can understand. In the heart of
picture-postcard London, this bizarre group stands out like a sore
thumb.
       
         
         
            

  Further investigation reveals that a film crew is tracking the party, at a
  discreet distance. Something is going on. In fact, the cameras are bearing
  witness to a historic event: the odd-looking group, whose skin is dark and
  whose smiles are wide, and who all measure around five feet tall, are on the
  verge of completing an extraordinary social experiment.

The Rise of the Social Operating System

In recent months we have witnessed a number of social networking sites begin to open up their platforms to outside developers. While this trend has been exhibited most prominently by Facebook, it is being embraced by all the leading social networking services, such as Plaxo, LinkedIn, Myspace and others. Along separate dimensions we also see a similar trend towards "platformization" in IM platforms such as Skype as well as B2B tools such as Salesforce.com.

If we zoom out and look at all this activity from a distance it appears that there is a race taking place to become "the social operating" system of the Web. A social operating system might be defined as a system that provides for systematic management and facilitation of human social relationships and interactions.

We might list some of the key capabilities of an ideal "social operating system" as:

  • Identity management
    • Open portable identity
    • Personal profiles ("personas")
    • Privacy control
  • Relationship management
    • Directory and lookup services (location of people to communicate with)
    • Social networking (opt-in relationship formation, indirect social connectivity via social networks)
    • Spam control
  • Communication
    • Person to person communication
      • Synchronous (IM, VOIP)
      • Asynchronous (email, SMS)
    • Group communication
      • Synchronous (conferencing)
      • Asynchronous (group discussions)
  • Social Content distribution
    • Personal publishing (blogging, home pages)
    • Public content distribution
  • Social Coordination
    • Event management (scheduling, invitations, RSVP’s)
    • Calendaring
  • Social Collaboration
    • File sharing
    • Document collaboration (communal authoring/editing)
    • Collaborative filtering
    • Recommendation systems
    • Knowledge management
    • Human powered search
    • Project management
    • Workflow
  • Commerce
    • Classified advertising
    • Auctions
    • Shopping

Today I have not seen any single player that provides a coherent solution to this entire "social stack" however Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL are probably the strongest contenders. Can Facebook and other social networks truly compete or will they ultimately be absorbed into one of these larger players?

Enriching the Connections of the Web — Making the Web Smarter

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:

  1. Connections between information (such as links)
  2. Connections between people (such as opt-in social relationships, buddy lists, etc.)
  3. Connections between applications (web services, mashups, client server sessions, etc.)
  4. Connections between information and people (personal data collections, blogs, social bookmarking, search results, etc.)
  5. Connections between information and applications (databases and data sets stored or accessible by particular apps)
  6. 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.

Web 3.0 — Next-Step for Web?

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.

The State of our Country: Newscaster Refuses to Read Paris Hilton Story; Burns Script on Camera

This is quite an amazing video clip — a news anchorwoman on MSNBC took a heroic stand and refused, on air, to lead with more news about Paris Hilton, despite her fellow anchormen and her producers trying to force her to. They actually almost get into a scuffle as she tries to burn the story with her lighter on camera! You’ve got to watch this. Mika Brzezinski has just proved she is perhaps the only major network journalist in America with a spine. She should get an award for this. Where do I sign up to join the Mika Brzezinski fan club?

Breaking the Collective IQ Barrier — Making Groups Smarter

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.

Enabling Technologies

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.

http://novaspivack.typepad.com/nova_spivacks_weblog/2007/02/steps_towards_a.html

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.

Virtualizing Intelligence

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.

Group Minds

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.

Conclusions

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.

Very Cool Laser Graffitti Technology

Josh sent me this link. It’s a video of a new technology for doing laser graffitti on the sides of buildings at night. Josh and I have been discussing how to do this for years. You could also project onto clouds. And of course with a computer to control the image you could make some very nice looking pictures, and ads…

Congratulations to Adam Cheyer and Change.org

My friend and colleague, Adam Cheyer, from SRI, recently helped to advise and launch Change.org — a social network for nonprofit activism. It’s a great site for a great cause. It’s also a great example of a special-purpose social network — a useful social network. Congratulations to Adam and the team over there! Read the TechCrunch review here.

New Cancer Wonder Drug: No Pharma Will Fund It Because it Can't be Patented

A new "miracle drug" appears to cure many types of cancers in a novel way. But the catch is no pharmaceutical company will fund research in it because it can’t be patented! Maybe it’s time to start a government agency or a non-profit that funds research and development, and distribution of, wonder drugs that are not patentable, for the public good. They could sell the drugs at cost as a non-profit — so they would recover their investment, without making a profit. If the Gates Foundation really wanted to help cure the world’s diseases this is a model for how they could do it. We can’t rely only on for-profit big-pharma ventures to solve all our problems. As this case illustrates, there are potential solutions that are not only effective but also inexpensive, which are falling through the cracks because they are not defensible exclusive commerical product opportunites.

Minding The Planet — The Meaning and Future of the Semantic Web

NOTES

Prelude

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.

Smart Data

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.

Making Metadata

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.

Is Moral Judgement Hard-Wired Into the Brain?

A Harvard University researcher believes that moral judgement is hard-wired into the brain:

The moral grammar now universal among people presumably evolved to its
final shape during the hunter-gatherer phase of the human past, before
the dispersal from the ancestral homeland in northeast Africa some
50,000 years ago. This may be why events before our eyes carry far
greater moral weight than happenings far away, Dr. Hauser believes,
since in those days one never had to care about people remote from ones
environment.

Dr. Hauser believes that the moral grammar may have evolved through the
evolutionary mechanism known as group selection. A group bound by
altruism toward its members and rigorous discouragement of cheaters
would be more likely to prevail over a less cohesive society, so genes
for moral grammar would become more common.

A World Without Elephants

This is so sad. Elephants are increasingly being wiped out due to encroachment by nearby human populations, and also by inept human attempts to help them — and of course by poaching. As their species is increasingly backed into a dead-end corner, and as older elephants are separated from their herds, younger elephants are developing psychological disorders and are becoming violent. Meanwhile female elephants are not learning to rear their young properly, leading to developmental disorders and social problems that then ripple from generation to generation. All of this is adding up to a downward spiral for elephants worldwide — and in fact, as the article illustrates, elephants in completely separate communites around the world are starting to exhibit signs of "going crazy."  I’ve always loved elephants and I wish there was something that could be done.

Humanity is so out of balance with the rest of planet. I’m a realist though — I don’t believe that governments, or even the majority of people in the world, will ever just sacrifice their own gain for the good of the environment or any other species. Only if it is clearly tied to their survival or personal gain, will most people and governments "feel the pain" enough to change their behavior.

The solution to the tragedy of the commons is to privatize, or to somehow connect what happens in the commons to everyone’s survival and benefit. Locally, elephant survival and well-being could be assured if the local government and people were paid to maintain them as a world resource. I think that there really should be a form of global taxation whereby every government pays into a fund that is then used to pay certain local communities around endangered resources and species to protect and steward them.

If there was a way to turn their environments and endangered species into resources that earned money for them (more money than they could earn by destroying them), then they would finally be motivated to take care of them. I doubt that any other kind of solution will ultimately work. Maybe I’m too cynical or too much of a realist or a pragmatist. But I really do think this solution would work, not just for the elephants, but the rainforests, the whales, coral reefs and fisheries, etc.

The Sell-Off of America

This article by Germany’s best-known economics writer provides a fast and high-level overview of how the American empire is losing (has lost?) its economic power. While the dollar is still the world’s currency of choice, the USA no longer controls it. Furthermore, with increasing trade deficits, the outsourcing of labor, and spiraling debt, the US economy is poised on the edge of collapse. And the American middle-class has and will bear the brunt of this shift as it plays out over the next few decades.

Excellent Strategic Analysis of North Korean Crisis

This article in the Atlantic Monthly presents the best analysis I’ve seen of the strategic situation on the Korean penninsula, and various US options (and potential mistakes to avoid). It’s really a fascinating read, and quite educational, for anyone concerned about what might happen in that arena.

The Next Sexual Revolution?

This article is an over-the-top and somewhat gonzo review of an experimental nasal-spray that promises to revolutionize sex. It is currently in clinical trials. The very idea of nasal spray would seem to be one of the bigger turn-offs there is, but in this case they’ve found the override button. The writer gushes that it could be the next big thing and that it will make everyone want to tear of their clothes and jump each other, etc. Hilarious. I probably should buy stock in this company!

Sign of the Times – View from the Top of World of Warcraft

This critical article by an ex-World of Warcraft player is a real sign of the times — the kind of article that people will read in a few hundred years as a window into our particular moment in history. The author reached the highest levels of the game and found that it was ruining his life as well as the lives of other players. Eventually he left the game for good. His article details how the game ate up more and more of his time, ruined relationships, and created a false sense of accomplishment in players. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for online gaming, but it is interesting and not necessarily healthy when people start spending more of their time, and investing more of their identity, in an imaginary world rather than the real one. Generally people who spend most of their time living out fantasies in imaginary worlds are called "crazy" — unless they are online gamers.