Why They Can’t See It – The Pew Survey

Today the Pew Center released a survey regarding the future of the Semantic Web. More than half of those responded didn’t think that the vision associated with the Semantic Web would be realized – that’s a startling conclusion, really. It’s even more remarkable given the fact that those who responded negatively didn’t think it would even happen by 2020.

Why is there such an overwhelming level of confusion surrounding Semantic Technology? I’ll offer an opinion that might clear it up somewhat…

Problem 1 – which is evident when you read the summary of the surveyNo one can accurately describe what the Semantic Web is or will be. The example given by Tim Berners-Lee is perhaps too specific of a Use Case to fully describe what these technologies will be doing behind the scenes. Also, as is the case with most web standards today, most people won’t fully appreciate or understand what mechanisms will power the applications of tomorrow.

It would probably be much more helpful to describe Semantic Technology or the Semantic Web in terms of what capabilities they will provide to solve categories of problems. Such descriptions if used would have a significant impact on the way people might respond in a survey like the one given by Pew Center. For example, a very realistic capability that might be available by 2020 is semantic mediated Healthcare clinical system interoperability – a situation that would facilitate the passing of data between electronic health care records, diagnostic system results, monitoring sensors and personal health record interfaces that would also support mobile access for both providers and patients. The semantic web does not have to think for us, it merely has to facilitate resolution of current data integration barriers to become truly revolutionary.

Problem 2 – Many folks are still missing the point. What do I mean? Well, for thirty years or so we’ve been trudging forward from a set of fairly abstract non-user friendly computational linguistics to higher level languages and standards which are inching ever closer to natural language logic expression and management. Believe it or not, this trend has been conquering the new Babel (hundreds of standards and computer languages) – Semantic Technology is the ultimate expression of this trend. RDF in particular takes us closer than ever before in moving from invented or logic focused grammar to natural language grammar. The impact of this cannot be taken lightly. It will change literally all aspects of information technology eventually. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the web except that the Internet has been the great motivating force that helped speed this trend up.

Problem 3 – Time to Get More Specific. Tim Berners-Lee and the other folks who championed Semantic Web standards have done a great service to the world, literally – their work will change how we view and manage knowledge. However, it is sometimes difficult for the true visionaries to express the necessary detailed steps of how we get from here to there – it’s time for a much broader group of technology leaders to step forward and map out the transition. As these intermediate details and voices become clearer, the rest of the technical community is finally going to get it – and when that starts the floodgates will open.

Think about this: how many people would have predicted in 1990 what a simple set of web-related standards would generate by 2010?  Google, Twitter, Facebook, the i-pod; think of how these things and many others like them have already transformed our culture? We built all of that on a foundation 1/10th the size of what we now access to – just think what we’ll do in ten years – you can call me optimistic but I think it’s inevitable…

Copyright 2010 – Stephen Lahanas



Pew survey, sadly oudated

Great post Stephen,

I wonder how chagrined many of the sages Pew surveyed feel now that Facebook launched a partial implementation of Semantic Web principles in their Open Graph RDFa. http://bit.ly/FbRDFaSW

Reasonable reservations notwithstanding, I think there is a growing Semantic Web meme afoot. I suspect Twitter’s as yet undefined annotations feature, Facebook’s Open Graph and Apple’s acquisition of Siri will spur a cascade of experimentation in the exceptional values to be gleaned from implementing Linked Data schema and galvanize further investments in the early practical application of Tim Berners-Lee’s 1999 vision of a Semantic Web.