Semantic Web: the tools are here

April 6, 2007

Tim Berners Lee has been appearing a lot in the media talking about how the revolution of semantic web will generate yet another inflexion point in our society. Given the potential of all reasoning that could be done if we had a computer-readable web, he may be quite right.

Every computer scientist knows what should be done to structure data in order to produce far better results than current Google results. Something like: “Which european countries won the world cup in the last 40 years?” could be translated easily into a standard SQL -like statement and processed over a database of the World Cup. The problem is: there is no such a database.

However the web has lots of redundant pages where this information is available on textual form. Indeed if you google for the terms [european countries champion “world cup” last 40 years] you may end up in Wikipedia and with some luck you could stumble upon this page, which list all champions of the world cup until now. If someone took the time to structure this on a web database, queries like the one above could be answered on a blink.

Let us briefly define the verb “to structure” as a way to generalize the data being presented. For our world cup example we could define a simple table such as: WorldCupChampions(Country, Year) that would store the country that won the Cup and the corresponding year. From there, our example question could be answered automatically and very quickly provided that some basic database functionality would be available on the web server.

So the ideas behind the semantic web may be that simple. What is it then that prevent us to build the new generation of search tools for the web? Let me try to answer that in one word: Standards. The web blossom did not have a lot to do with the powerful idea of Hypertext which was around for ages. The simple thing that made the sucess of the Web was that somehow everyone started to write their pages in HTML. Brillant. Everyone agreed to use the same thing to build stuff just for a change. That made all the difference.

So what we may be lacking could be some simple standard representation and procedures for the rest of the world to start structuring things. Maybe some plug-in from Firefox that made possible to read through a Wiki and to create structure from this wiki and publish to the crowd that could then make further use of such structure refining it, extending it and populating it. Something like a big world wide swiki (structured wiki) that would contain the basic facts of the universešŸ˜‰ . LetĀ“s hope someone is listening.

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