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.