The Next Web (fwd)

From: Eugene Leitl (
Date: Wed Feb 27 2002 - 05:16:40 MST

-- Eugen* Leitl leitl
ICBMTO: N48 04'14.8'' E11 36'41.2''
57F9CFD3: ED90 0433 EB74 E4A9 537F CFF5 86E7 629B 57F9 CFD3

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 27 Feb 2002 11:56:32 -0000
From: Peter Kilby <>
To: "FoRK (E-mail)" <>
Subject: The Next Web

The Next Web

Think the World Wide Web is a godsend? By 2005, Tim Berners-Lee aims to be
replacing it with the Semantic Web, which will understand human language

Whatever else 1955 is remembered for, it boasts two notable birthdays. That
June, Timothy J. Berners-Lee popped into the world in London, and a few
months later, William H. Gates III opened his eyes in Seattle. Gates went on
to become the richest person on earth as head of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) Tim
Berners-Lee might be giving Gates a run for the money, but he passed up his
shot at fabulous wealth--intentionally--in 1990. That's when he decided not
to patent the technology used to create the most important software
innovation in the final decade of the 20th century: the World Wide Web.
Berners-Lee wanted to make the world a richer place, not amass personal
wealth. So he gave his brainchild to us all.

Now, the idealistic father of the Web plans an even grander gift: a
next-generation Web that almost certainly will rank as the most important
software of this decade. Berners-Lee regards today's Web as a rebellious
adolescent that can never fulfill his original expectations. By 2005, he
hopes to begin replacing it with the Semantic Web--a smart network that will
finally understand human languages and make computers virtually as easy to
work with as other humans.

This new project is a collaborative effort of hundreds of minds, with
Berners-Lee as maestro. The ultimate goal: to turn the Web into a gigantic
brain. Every computer connected to the Internet would have access to all the
knowledge that humankind has accumulated in science, business, and the arts
since we began painting the walls of caves 30,000 years ago. This racial
memory would be a constant source of inspiration for dreaming sublime
dreams, boosting human creativity, and solving previously intractable
problems. Online commerce chores and Web services would be handled by
software modules that snap together like toy Lego blocks. "We expect the
Semantic Web to be as big a revolution as the original Web itself," says
Richard Hayes-Roth, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s (HWP ) chief technology officer
for software.

To get there, though, Berners-Lee must navigate some very muddy waters.
Development of the Semantic Web is being funded mainly by the World Wide Web
Consortium (W3C), which he heads. Founded in 1994 and based at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, the W3C is the guardian of Web technology and
standards. Its budget relies heavily on membership dues from more than 400
companies. And while making money may not be a primary motivator for
Berners-Lee, it's what business is all about. Conflicts, in short, were
inevitable--and not just centering around Berners-Lee. Indeed, mediating the
inevitable clashes among W3C's hundreds of companies, each with its own
agenda, will be the acid test of Berners-Lee's leadership.

A particularly thorny issue cropped up last August. A W3C committee of 13
members, including IBM (IBM ) and Microsoft, proposed installing tollbooths
on the Information Highway by allowing patented software to be included in
W3C-approved standards. The committee reasoned that as online offerings grow
more sophisticated, the developers of software for handling advanced Web
services, such as supply-chain management and collaborative engineering,
should be permitted to collect royalties on their investments. But
Berners-Lee is philosophically opposed to standards that would impose fees,
and many other W3C members, such as the Free Software Foundation and the
Open Source Initiative, also denounced the notion. "Things have calmed down
a bit," says Robert S. Sutor, IBM's director of e-business standards, and
the committee is now rethinking its stance. Berners-Lee says the mood has
now shifted "strongly toward a royalty-free position."

Meanwhile, the W3C is taking heat on other fronts. Critics say the
organization is moving too slowly on developing standards to ensure that
different Web-service offerings can work together. Business sees major
revenue growth from better tools that can deal with complicated travel
arrangements, say, or deliver new entertainment options. But companies are
reluctant to invest in developing such software until big corporations are
on the same page. What good would it do, for example, to create a program
under Microsoft's Web-services initiative, dubbed .Net, if it couldn't link
up with a related program written in Java for Sun Microsystems Inc.'s
(SUNW ) counterpart? Or if a computer-aided design program at Boeing Corp.
were unable to talk to the company's engineering or manufacturing software?

A W3C draft specification aimed at harmonizing Web services was published in
January, 2001, "but the W3C then sat on its hands for a whole year"
complains Uttam M. Narsu, an analyst at Giga Information Group. Not until
late January did the W3C organize several working groups to tackle standards
for Web services. "My sense is that [W3C staffers] are too visionary," Narsu
says. "They're devoting too much effort to the Semantic Web, believing it
will change the world yet again, and not enough effort to less sexy things
that are important to business in the near term."

The Semantic Web is certainly sexy. As envisioned by Berners-Lee, it would
understand not only the meaning of words and concepts but also the logical
relationships among them. That has awesome potential. Most knowledge is
built on two pillars: semantics and mathematics. In number-crunching,
computers already outclass people. Machines that are equally adroit at
dealing with language and reason won't just help people uncover new
insights; they could blaze new trails on their own.

Even with a fairly crude version of this future Web, mining online
repositories for nuggets of knowledge would no longer force people to wade
through screen after screen of extraneous data. Instead, computers would
dispatch intelligent agents, or software messengers, to explore Web sites by
the thousands and logically sift out just what's relevant. That alone would
provide a major boost in productivity at work and at home. But there's far

Software agents could also take on many routine business chores, such as
helping manufacturers find and negotiate with lowest-cost parts suppliers
and handling help-desk questions. The Semantic Web would also be a
bottomless trove of eureka insights. Most inventions and scientific
breakthroughs, including today's Web, spring from novel combinations of
existing knowledge. The Semantic Web would make it possible to evaluate more
combinations overnight than a person could juggle in a lifetime. "A lot of
scientific research is now interdisciplinary, like global climate change,
and the scientists need to talk to each other," says Chaitanya Baru, a
data-mining expert at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. "But they use
different jargon."

Sure, scientists and other people can post ideas on the Web today for others
to read. But with machines doing the reading and translating jargon terms,
related ideas from millions of Web pages could be distilled and summarized.
That will lift the ability to assess and integrate information to new

As a result, Berners-Lee envisions a new age of enlightenment. The Semantic
Web, he predicts, "will help more people become more intuitive as well as
more analytical. It will foster global collaborations among people with
diverse cultural perspectives, so we have a better chance of finding the
right solutions to the really big issues--like the environment and climate
warming." In short, it will change the world even more than his original

The capital-Q question is: Can he pull it off? There's no shortage of
doubters. Still, most people who know the reclusive Berners-Lee are
optimistic. "Tim has a gift for seeing the future and making it happen,"
says John R. Patrick, a retired IBM senior exec who helped found the W3C.
Eric E. Schmidt, formerly of Sun and now chairman of search-engine innovator
Google Inc., says Berners-Lee would be a shoo-in for a Nobel prize--if
Nobels were given in computer science. And Larry L. Smarr, director of the
California Institute of Telecommunications & Information Technology at the
University of California at San Diego, predicts the Semantic Web will cast
Berners-Lee as "an historic-level figure."

What impresses those elder statesmen of computing is Berners-Lee's
leadership track record. For a somewhat shy software nerd, he has
demonstrated a surprising flair for diplomacy, combined with bulldog
tenacity. In the midst of the dot-com bust two years ago, Berners-Lee
persuaded the W3C's hard-nosed denizens of commerce to begin developing the
Semantic Web. And before that, in 1998, he persuaded them to approve
extensible markup language (XML), an important new Web lingo. "Tim did a
great job shepherding XML through the W3C," notes Smarr.

Indeed, the evolution of XML may be a useful foretaste of what's in store
for the Berners-Lee's new vision. In the late 1990s, this language was
constructed to help computers identify different types of data on the Web.
"When we started work on XML, it was considered pretty esoteric," recalls
Sutor of IBM. "But now it's the underpinnings of everything we're doing in
e-business." Ditto for hundreds of others, including the 300 companies
already using XML software from Open Applications Group Inc. OAGI predicts
that number will double this year.

Berners-Lee worked tirelessly to win support for XML because it's a quantum
leap beyond today's witless hypertext markup language (HTML)--and it's the
cornerstone of the Semantic Web. HTML is the language that Berners-Lee
concocted while on a fellowship as a database engineer at the European
Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. But the language merely
specifies the appearance of a Web page: what colors go where, which type
sizes to use, and where to put graphic elements. To a Web browser, or most
other computer programs, these words and numbers are just squiggles of
gibberish. Without some kind of clue, computers parsing a Web page can't
determine if "buy" is a noun or a verb, or whether "20031" is a Zip Code, a
price, or the number of orders placed last month.

In contrast, XML tags imbue the Web with meaning. Examples might be such
labels as , and for medical records. The "name" tag would have links to
relevant sections of online literature, also coded with XML, and
"interaction" would point to other drugs that interfere with the medication.
Then, when a doctor bats out a prescription on a computer, a software agent
could verify that the drug is appropriate for the diagnosis, check the
patient's records to see what other medicines the person is taking, and
determine whether any of them is likely to interfere with the new
prescription. A group of university and industrial researchers is already
working on such a scheme with the Veterans Administration and the National
Library of Medicine.

Without Berners-Lee's dogged persistence, today's Web might never have
hatched at CERN. But he pulled it off, right under the disapproving noses of
senior management.

To physicists around the world, CERN's huge atom-smashing collider, which
traces a 17-mile-long circle beneath the Swiss-French border, is a kind of
Alpine mecca. Part of Berners-Lee's job was to keep track of who was where,
doing what, and using which kind of computer. That was a major headache for
the young researcher, who admits to having a bad memory for names and faces.
Twice he proposed a pre-Web database that would store data on thousands of
researchers and help organize the results of their work into an
institutional memory. Both times his idea got spurned.

Undeterred, Berners-Lee then went underground and cajoled a small band of
cohorts, including his Belgian-born supervisor, Robert Cailliau, to help
create the original Web on the sly. Even after the first prototype was done
and winning converts in the outside world, convincing CERN's staff of its
utility took several months, with Cailliau playing the role of Web salesman.
Berners-Lee praises the contributions of Cailliau and the other
co-conspirators in his 1999 book, Weaving the Web. "Tim's a very modest
person, and he has been careful to credit the people who've worked with
him," says Vinton G. Cerf, senior vice-president at WorldCom Inc., who
helped spawn the Internet in the early 1970s as a medium for scientific

Cailliau and Berners-Lee considered forming a startup to commercialize the
Web, but they quickly nixed the notion. That was 1990, a hectic year for
Berners-Lee. He got married, made the momentous decision not to patent the
Web software, and, on Christmas Day, switched on the world's first Web-site

Even though Berners-Lee has little time for anything other than software and
family, he does occasionally play the piano, "but I'm terrible at it," he
confesses. He won't talk much about his private life, but he admits to
feeling a tug from the theater. While at CERN, he helped out backstage at
the Geneva English Drama Society and played bit parts, including Nana, the
dog in Peter Pan. That's where he met his future wife, Nancy Carlson, a
software analyst from Fairfield, Conn. She was working at the World Health
Organization and managing the little theater group in the evening.

Today, Berners-Lee presides over a research octopus whose tentacles extend
to all five continents. The 60 staffers at W3C headquarters coordinate the
efforts of hundreds of researchers at 50 university and government
laboratories that are W3C members, plus two-score additional universities
around the world. For now, most of the actual work on the Semantic Web is
being done by academics because, Berners-Lee quips, "only a few industry
people have been given a little leeway to go off and explore my crazy

Those ideas spring from a childhood fascination with computers--encouraged
by parents who both were mathematicians and computer-science pioneers.
Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods met in the early 1950s while on the
team that developed the Ferranti Mark 1 computer. Their first son was
treated to breakfast discussions about programming and dinner-table talk of
abstract math and imaginary numbers. As a child, Tim built let's-pretend
computers from cardboard boxes and drew miniature pictures by connecting the
holes in the punched paper tape that was then used to load programs into
computers. At Oxford University's Queen's College, he studied physics,
graduating with honors in 1976. "Physics was a compromise," he says, between
two loves--math and engineering.

As Berners-Lee readily admits, all the components of the Web already existed
when he arrived at CERN. His main contribution was writing the software to
combine them cohesively. The Internet was commonly used to exchange
scientific reports, but there were no point-and-click links: You had to type
in arcane commands and addresses. There were hypertext programs with
clickable links, but each version was tailored for a specific breed of
computer--and often for a single location--each with its own peculiar
command-line entries.

Berners-Lee tore down this Tower of Babel, making it a breeze to share
information. Uniform resource locators (URLs) established a common format
for Web-page addresses, and HTML ensured that Web pages always looked the
same. The new tools spread quickly among researchers, but the public didn't
pay much heed because the Web remained a slave to abstruse typed-in

What launched the Web's explosive growth was the now-familiar browser,
pioneered by Netscape Communications Corp. Berners-Lee still chafes at
Netscape's one-way limitation. From the outset, he thought the Web should be
a two-way street, with browsers making it easy to create and annotate Web
pages. Removing this limitation is one of the goals of the Semantic Web.

XML is a start--but only the tip of the iceberg. XML tags are essentially
just labels that point to a definition in a combination dictionary and
thesaurus. That's how a software agent can determine that two different tags
actually mean the same thing--say, and . When an agent needs further
details, there's an online encyclopedia, called an ontology. It lays out the
logical rules and relationships among XML terms.

Merging these elements is where semantics gets sticky. Because we humans
assimilate language gradually, we end up unaware of how complicated things
are--until we try to construct a new digital grammar from scratch, with
numerous dialects for various industries. Devising software that can
comprehend words, concepts, and relationships has long been a major hangup
in artificial intelligence (AI) research. Adding a pervasive layer of
standardization will test the limits of human ingenuity--and patience.

In the fast-paced Internet Age, the time needed to build consensus on the
smallest of these details could be the Semantic Web's chief obstacle, says
MCI's Cerf. He worries that standards could "fall victim to business
maneuvering" by the W3C's corporate members. The result might end up similar
to today's systems for electronic data interchange (EDI)--with a lot of
proprietary systems, each with its own lingo. On the other hand, partly
because the industry is acutely aware of EDI's problems and limitations,
executives are optimistic. "It'll be a chicken-or-egg situation until a
killer app comes along--but I'm very confident that that will happen," says
W. Daniel Hillis, a supercomputer pioneer who now heads startup Applied
Minds Inc.

Some academics are enthusiastic about the corporate involvement that
Berners-Lee has attracted. James A. Hendler, a computer scientist at the
University of Maryland, says he has worked on AI for 20 years and "it has
been almost impossible to get the attention of business." But now, he says,
"the advances we made in the 1990s are being readied for actual use with the
Semantic Web, out there in the real world."

One other factor could give Berners-Lee's vision an enormous boost: The
Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is pushing it.
This is the outfit that created the guts of the Internet three decades ago.
In 1998, it launched the DARPA Agent MarkUp Language (DAML)
program--initially managed by Hendler, who took a leave of absence from
Maryland. DARPA is now a W3C member, and DAML is being developed in concert
with XML.

DARPA wants to develop agent-based systems for command-and-control jobs in
joint military operations, whether they be multiservice or multinational.
For example, an international team of 16 organizations--led by a spin-off of
Britain's Defense Ministry called QinetiQ Ltd.--is working on a "coalition
of agents" project. With DAML tags pointing to online databases, plus access
to satellite reconnaissance images, the agents would be aware of the
capabilities and locations of the many different weapons and logistics
systems deployed to such spots as Afghanistan. So they could provide
commanders with instant advice for coping with shifting conditions.

DARPA is also funding research at MIT, headed by Berners-Lee but separate
from the W3C, aimed at creating new AI tools for tomorrow's Web. One result
would be Semantic Web logic language (Swell). Another goal is to marry the
Semantic Web with MIT's Oxygen project, which aims to make various digital
systems as easy to use as breathing, thanks to advanced machine-learning
tricks and new AI software. Cailliau, Berners-Lee's former boss at CERN,
figures the Web's inventor relishes this research. "I think Tim does not
really like the role" of leading a big outfit like the W3C, says Cailliau.
"He is more comfortable with a small team [and] joining in the fun of
writing actual code."

Berners-Lee admits that building consensus among the W3C's members can be
trying at times. But someone needs to keep development of the Semantic Web
on course toward enriching the world--and nobody is better qualified than

By Otis Port

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Wed Jul 17 2013 - 04:00:37 MDT