Boiling the Ocean
At its most basic level, the semantic web involves machines communicating with other machines in a more intelligent way than theydo today by adding a semantic layer to the existing web. Mills Davis,founder and managing director of Project10X, a Washington, D.C.-basedconsulting firm specializing in semantic technologies, recently authored a comprehensive report on the state of semantic technologiescalled "The Semantic Wave 2008 Report: Industry Roadmap to Web 3.0 and Multibillion Dollar Market Opportunities." The report’s executive summary describes the semantic web as follows:
"Semantically modeled, machine executable knowledge lets us connect information about people, events, locations, times—in fact, any conceptthat we want to—across different content sources and application processes. Instead of disparate data and applications on the Web, weget a Web of interrelated data and interoperable applications."
Howard Greenblatt, CTO at Metatomix, who has been working with semantic technologies since 2000, says it was around that time that Tim Berners-Lee began talking about creating the semantic web as an extension of the existing web: creating a web of meaning instead of a web comprised of simple hyperlinks. Greenblatt explains that when we visit a site, we see a link and we read it and understand the words and where it’s going to go, but the machine doesn’t understand anything beyond the underlying HTML that identifies it as a hyperlink. "There’s nothing machine-processable about that link at all," he says. However,he explains that if you were to build a semantic connection to that link, the link itself would have intelligence and the system could understand it. Thus, when you click it, the underlying computer system could process it and send more meaningful information to the next system.
Marc Strohlein, a consultant at Outsell, Inc., thinks it’s important to look beyond the theoretical viewpoint associated with
the W3C and Tim Berners-Lee to the semantic technology that underlies it. He says of the W3C approach, "It’s like boiling the ocean. I think Berners-Lee set the bar pretty high." Strohlein explains that with semantic technology, you have three layers—meaning, code, and content—and the semantic technology separates these three layers from one another. It also provides a way to establish models of relationships between entities and concepts, he says, so you go up a level of abstraction. "The semantic web is essentially the web enabled with these technologies."
Trying to communicate this concept to people is a challenge. "It’s a pretty complex topic with a complex nomenclature around it," Strohleinsays, "and this can be a barrier for people. The first reaction is ‘I can’t deal with a technology that I need to be a rocket scientist to understand.’ Most people can understand content management and search,but when you talk about ontologies, people’s eyes glaze over." That’s why companies selling semantic technology products are generally taking small steps, and talking more about the results than the underlying technology.
Where Does Content Fit?
What this means from a content standpoint, says Project10X’s Davis, is that we are going to see the ways we use content on the web transformed, as the social web interacts and intertwines with the semantic web. "The whole realm of content has several ways it’s going to move," he says. For instance, "From the standpoint of communities, a key trend is the collective knowledge system and that’s the intersection of Web 2.0, collaboration and Web 3 or the semantic knowledge-intensive stuff."
He explains that this is dependent upon intelligent interfaces and interfaces that can actually learn, and that this learning can come from members of the community interacting with the system. He uses an example of a travel site where people post their travel experiences,and this community information then becomes the basis for the website to provide more accurate and in-depth recommendations. "The learning can come from people’s interaction with the system, so you get a concept of systems that improve their operations without having been explicitly programmed to process the new information."
This means that knowledge becomes an operational piece of the process.With content delivery, he explains, the system can use this informationin new ways based on the task, interest, or the point of view of thevisitor to the website, and it is the semantic layer that makes thispossible. "This can only be done in a computer era where [the system]knows something about the reader and is able to learn and observe andadapt its behavior to that person, and also knows something about thecontent and the meaning of what it’s dealing with in terms of subjectmatter in order to be able to organize and project and adaptivelypresent content that is tailored to the needs of that reader."