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.

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10 Responses to Enriching the Connections of the Web — Making the Web Smarter

  1. buhlerworks says:

    More on Web 3.0

    from this post Enriching the Connections of the Web — Making the Web Smarter that just appeared on Nova Spivack’s “Minding the Planet” blog.

  2. Kimitri says:

    Good points! One connection what I thing is coming important are location connections.
    – Lets make Web more intelligent!

  3. hjalli says:

    You asked for other kinds of connections.
    You’ve certainly covered all possible connections between people, information and applications, but what about other entities?
    One that comes to mind is companies: What about links between companies, between people and companies, and companies and information?
    That could be expanded to mean “group”, as more informal groups than companies have the same kind of connections (and are sometimes better defined in today’s web environment). Companies however have a certain status in the world – such as the right to own things (e.g. information) – which might set them apart.
    Then again “a company” or “a group” are maybe not well defined as “objects” on the web today – and therefore wrong to say that these are connections currently found there?

  4. Regarding links: back about 12 years ago we built a software framework in the (then new) Java language named “Roku”. Our ontology in Roku (Japanese for ‘six’) broke everything into one of six categories (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How).
    In that implementation of our model we had semantic links between these granular objects (with meaning expressed in both directions). It was fully integrated with desktop applications (and Internet data) and broke up structured data into webs of semantically related objects.
    One of the major issues we had was viewing these links between objects as individual entities in themselves. What we observed (in practice) was that links between objects happen in larger patterns (sets of links). We have since moved to patterns to hold the relationships between objects. Those patterns are classes in their own right and other objects only relate to the patterns. Our ‘context engine’ is the core of a project we are working on named indi. We pretty much hide all the semantics inside the platform, but folks will be able to feel it as they use it (oh, and we moved to Ruby in 2001).
    I have really enjoyed your posts on this semantic web stuff. You have done a great job in explaining what can be a very arcane area. I look forward to checking out Radar when it launches.

  5. Ina says:

    What about intuitive connections with people Nova, especially regarding the Social Web? Surely this is a form of intelligence, that often goes unquantified and gets dismissed all too easily.

  6. Nodalities says:

    The Platform and the Web – what can Facebook and Talis tell us?

    There has been much talk of Platforms in the context of the Web recently, although usage has proved somewhat troublesome to pin down. In a recent podcast conversation with me, Tom Heath probed some fledgling ideas about the way…

  7. Vera Bass says:

    Excellent post.
    Here’s my input. The form of connection that I’m not seeing represented is that between people, not as individuals who network or have ‘friends’, but as both members of communities and participants of one type or another.
    All the data on the web comes from people. If I’m searching for and accessing that data via a semantic facility, then I would think that my search results would be greatly enhanced by knowing more than only whether that data came from an individual (as opposed to an institution, private firm, etc.).
    I haven’t thought about how such information could be incorporated into a semantic relationship between packets structure, but do know that people contributing information are usually happy to identify their level of knowledge, expertise, interest and involvement, which self-identification options can be offered them in a variety of formats and situations.

  8. I really agree about connections between ontologies. But it needs standardization of classes and properties described in owl. I could model the relationship “to work” in different ways: “work_at”, “employee of”, “developer at” or “consultant_at” etc.
    And it shoul be indipendent from language. I’m Italian, and I could call this relationship in my language “lavora a”.
    So it should need an integration work that isn’t so nice 🙂
    If we want a connected semantic web, we should create standard classes a props in owl (eg. like hcard in microformats). Something to extend where you need, but the least common multiple for everyone.
    What do you think about it?

  9. How will the Seamntic Web address the fact that people lie?