Towards the Acceptance of Our Ignorance

I’ve been sitting for awhile on an excellent post Alex Iskold wrote for ReadWriteWeb on the semantic Web. He raises good questions about semantics’ viability in the mass consumer market and what it will take to get it there. However that application ultimately looks, it must, in Alex’s words, “ignite imagination and capture people’s hearts and minds.” Perfect characterization – one I wish I’d come up with.

I hadn’t been able to put my finger on exactly why the post gave me pause. Then this morning it hit me: I don’t know what the semantic Web is. Further, I don’t think any of us do.

Now before you press that “Flame” button (I’m assuming all new keyboards come equipped with one these days), let me explain myself. Technically, of course I can define semantics. The semantic Web is a smarter Web. It is one that understands the meaning behind data and makes salient and usable connections between previously flat entities. But translating that into a workable application is an entirely different matter. I agree with Alex’s assertion that the semantic Web won’t truly be defined until its killer app hits. But I think we are a long way off from even approaching the neighborhood of a killer app. Theorizing about in which sector it will hit is akin to throwing darts into the ocean. (Choose your favorite metaphor of futility there.)

I’ve talked to a large number of companies utilizing semantics and they are all over the map, from innovative search engines to deep databases to talking personal assistants. Each time I get on the phone with a company, I hope it will be *the* answer, the semantics application that will clear up the whole muddied mess and crystallize the sector. It hasn’t happened yet and, if anything, each conversation adds another layer to an already deep issue.

Awhile back, I had a fascinating conversation with Larry Lefkowitz at CyCorp, a renowned company in artificial intelligence that has been working on a self-learning computing system for close to 20 years. The CyCorp site is decidedly old-school and you won’t find its execs doing interviews with 60 Minutes. But, as I wrote at the time for The Guidewire Report, the work CyCorp is doing is among the most important in technology today. As Larry pointed out to me, the truism of AI, and subsequently semantics, is that when it truly works, you won’t notice it. Perhaps that’s the irony of this ongoing discussion among pundits. No matter how many theories we have as to where it’s coming from and where it’s going, the ultimate solution will likely evolve quietly, organically, behind the scenes of a seemingly run-of-the-mill software app. We’ll raise our heads from our keyboards one day and find that the words we’re typing have taken on a life of their own.

Now I’ve scared myself a little bit. My point is that perhaps we don’t have to parse every aspect of technology in order to bring meaning and understanding to it. Perhaps there are parts of our technological universe that need, even demand, to be free-flowing and unstructured before they can coalesce into a game-changing proposition. Maybe – just maybe – it’s okay that we don’t comprehend the implications of this sector fully. To a world of technologists accustomed to breaking down every problem in order to solve it, that may seem impossible. But I’m willing to give it a try.

6 Comments »

  1. jmforbes said

    Carla,
    I love it when an entrepreneur pitches the “symantec web.” Most often the pitch seems like a completely random game of buzzword bingo. All that’s missing from such pitches is a stentorian voice over booming “and to boldly take users into Infinity and Beyond!”
    Parsing every word of a pitch can be extremely vexing. I still have about 20 notebooks from pitches I heard at Demo and every now and again I pull some of them out and read a couple. Most often I laugh.Sometimes I cry. But through all my years at Demo I was happiest when I’d find a bright shiny nugget hidden amongst the language of ” the pitch.”

  2. […] current events, DEMO, Jodange, search engine, semantics, Silobreaker As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of the many obsessed with the semantic Web. It’s a catch-all term for […]

  3. […] is just as undefined, if not more so. The chatter is rising to louder levels, as I mentioned in a recent post on semantics, making it that much harder to clearly define this important but hazy sector. Even […]

  4. Well, I think that a problem with the “semantic” web
    is that to get the true connectivity of words and meaning
    is a language problem. And language problems
    are traditionally difficult, and still under a great
    deal of research.

    But everyone should keep trying, since if the
    language made “sense,” the computer would
    be an order of magnitude or two more
    useful.

  5. Alex said

    At CureHunter we are trying some semantic search techniques in the medical research domain… check us out if get the chance. Not so much rdf semantic web stuff, but more nlp, entity relationship extraction.

    Our goal is to build a machine which knows all the treatment options for every disease and can evaluate them to some degree based on what the research and evidence says. Essentially attempting to build an instrument to enable Evidence Based Medicine in real-time.

  6. […] but I think the broad answer is very simple: remove “semantics” from the equation. I tackled this issue a few months ago, making the point that …the ultimate solution will likely evolve […]

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