April 2007

Dave McComb asks on his Semantic Technology blog what it will take to build the semantic technology industry – or what it will take to make it “take”.

Often when people speak about semantic technologies, they tend to describe something web based, that the typical surfer might unknowingly experience and enjoy – something that requires that the web be populated with semantically compliant information, and navigated by mechanisms that seek and process that compliant information… something that seems years away.

There’s some chicken and egg business going on here: we need web services that are looking for this particular form of metadata in order to justify mass creation of it, and at the same time, it needs to exist in order to justify the building of apps which take advantage of it. One approach is to build semantic layers to enable data integration and conversion, but this seems targeted at near-term fixes and band aid-type solutions to legacy systems and data sets. On the other side of the equation are vendor and consultant efforts to attract enterprises to utilize proprietary tool sets or methodologies. In either case, the focus is on generating savings or revenue.

Hitting the pause button on near-term-focused business models would do a lot to enable people to better focus on how to get from here to there, without having to worry about their own performance, paying the bills, and keeping the lights on. Everyone could then go about finally loading their photo albums, updating their address books, and populating all the metadata we need – but obviously that’s not going to happen either (echoing David Hay’s related comment).

So how do we get from here to there? This may echo some of the sentiments already expressed below/above, but in sum, I think the “way”:

  • lies at the intersection of the many popular Web 2.0-type tagging, sharing, and/or social networking apps that themselves are on fire today;
  • comes from within activities people are already engaged in;
  • builds from the bottom up, while at the same time being top down;
  • is found in baby steps, but in baby steps that yield fruit with each step;

and in doing so, harnesses the natural proclivities of individuals.

In short, this means subtly re-engineering user experience in activities that people engage in (going to conferences, for example), while allowing the semantics to grow from interaction (of experts) in these activities, from the bottom up. In a recent post of mine, I talked about semantic technologies being special not just because they are the building blocks of the future – but specifically because they are building blocks designed to accommodate things we haven’t yet discovered. Using these tools to build mechanisms that allow or facilitate discovery and use of what is discovered – iteratively, for further use and discovery – is how I think we get “there”.

I should start by saying that I am not a programmer. That said, I have spent a good amount of time researching semantic technology and considering its possibilities in the context of various value networks.

With this post, I will start to work through some ideas that this research has led me to, and I’m hoping that interested readers will be moved to contribute their own thoughts.

We’ve all seen the many explanations of what semantic technology is – on the technical end, the standards of RDF and OWL, and on a basic level, the using of those standards to enable machines to “understand” what we mean. There is one dimension of all this that I find fascinating, but I haven’t found much about it.

Semantic technologies are in essence the raw materials of an architecture for defining that which we do not yet know. We can use these tools to enable us to build systems around what we do know, but in ways that allow for the unknown. In the context of a schema-driven relational architecture, we are bound in the future by the structures we create today, to handle the information we can think of at the time of development. With RDF and OWL, we are able to use the knowledge we have today, and we can make assertions in the future to adapt to relationships that are emergent.

The important thing about this is that it treats these tools as enablers of live, if not iterative, development in any domain – yes, in terms of software development, but more generally in terms of knowledge development. If the Web is becoming a database to be tapped on the fly, we have to make what we create adaptive and responsive to unforeseeable discoveries.

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