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Can 'Spiritual Computing' Drive Web 3.0?

From the Industrial Revolution through the Information Age, technology has, in almost equal measure, improved our standard of living and wrecked havoc on our quality of life.

The march of progress has gutted our countryside of farm labor and filled our streams with foamy discharge; stamped out smallpox and scarred us with birth defects; brought us the insect repellent and the endangered species; alienated us from our roots and helped make the world a global village.

No wonder so many people have invested technology in general, and the Internet in particular, with their hopes of filling whatever hole modern life has dug.

And maybe it will. Maybe the improvements in productivity, consumerism and communication represented by Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 are nothing more than a collective clearing of the throat, the revving of a truly revolutionary engine.

Technology and the people

If that's the case, though, how will Web 3.0 change our lives and make us happier? And what will be the technological and economic drivers to make that a reality?

Computer scientists and visionaries today see a future in which Web 3.0 will help us engage in virtual battles with cancer cells, keep us physically independent as we age, and achieve a deeper emotional connection to things that matter most to us.

Dana Pavel believes that technology can make a profound difference in our lives if computers can understand more about where we are and how we are feeling.

"At some point you want to do something more than accomplish tasks through technologies and devices," said the researcher who studies affective and context-aware computing at Nokia's Helsinki Research Center.

"You want to also address users' spiritual needs."

Pavel calls this "spiritual computing," but is careful to explain that this doesn't imply a specific dogma or religion.

"It has to be about whatever 'spiritual' means to any individual," she said. "It's more about bringing certain knowledge or experience, not necessarily with religious connotations.

"But if technology can help people understand themselves better, that would be good."

According to Pavel, if computing devices can be made more aware of our surroundings and our emotional states, it can make recommendations that are more important and relevant than what color shirt to buy.

For instance, a portable device could "know" you're in a city's museum district and recommend a nearby exhibition that includes some of your favorites to lighten your mood.

"The systems should know much more about you than they do right now," she said. "If the machine knows something about your affective state, for instance, it can improve its reasoning."

Other computer scientists have a much more three-dimensional view.

"Web 3.0 is robotics," said Illah Norubakhsh, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

Taking that leap

According to Norubakhsh, the next leap forward in technology is to take what has already been done in artificial intelligence (AI) and relate it to the real world.

"We all occupy physical space and ether simultaneously," he said. "3.0 is about taking the ether and tying it back to the physical world."

So how would this work exactly?

Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's robotics group, imagines robots helping lonely grandparents isolated in the Great Plains states, reminding them to take their meds, giving them hugs from their grandkids and helping them up when they fall down.

"The more we can use technology to allow us to remain in contact so we don't have to be put in special care centers, the happier we'll all be," he said.

Other computer scientists are working on semantic issues.

Chris Dance, manager at the Xerox Research Center in Grenoble, France, said that semantic understanding is one trend his team has identified in brainstorming sessions on the theme of Web 3.0.

This is not to be confused with what Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee called the semantic Web, which is about machine-to-machine communication.

This is more about machines gaining a better understanding of human intelligence in order to better mimic it.

"I prefer to target resources and methods for taking existing humanly expressed information and turning it into a machine-processable form so that the information can be of greater utility," Dance explained.

Such systems will be able to provide more meaningful experiences because they will have a better "intuitive" understanding of what users want, Dance added.

"They will more efficiently construct the service that is exactly the one that one needs."

Next page: The role of science