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Revisiting Semantic Web's Pros and Cons

Semantic Web

Mention the Semantic Web, and some people think it's going to be a little slice of heaven, while others see it as the end of the world.

The first camp, which mainly includes scientists and researchers, wants to use computers to link up data from different sources to create a holistic view of the world.

The second, which is more concerned with the social impact of technology, counters that this would result in a massive invasion of privacy and that it will create useless results in part because it misses out on the implicit or ambiguous communications of the real world -- where a wink is often as good as a nod. (And how would you wink if you were a computer?)

Of course, they both could be right. Ultimately, their debate is really about how the technological advances may impact society.

Scientists tend to like their worlds clear-cut and devoid of extraneous loose bits of matter, and typical of those who espouse the pro-Semantic Web view is Prof. James Hendler of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"My work is trying to integrate heterogeneous data using appropriate amounts of metadata and doing things with metadata that you can't do with language or specific data," Hendler told

For example, he said, searching for a video on YouTube would likely be fruitless "unless you know the name of the artist and what you want to see." Having brief descriptions of a video's contents would be helpful but people submitting videos to the site "don't want to write that many words when they send in their videos."

However, if the files include a small amount of metadata, people searching for, say, the James Bond movie "Goldfinger" may be able to find the video even without knowing its name.

Users "would, for example, be able to say 'I want that video where the guy takes off his hat and throws it at a statue and the head falls off and the hat comes back to you' and it comes back with the title of the James Bond movie and a spoof."

The vision, as articulated by Sir Tim Berners-Lee back in 1999, was of a Web in which computers "become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web -- the content, links, and transactions between people and computers" and this would result in "the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives" being handled by machines talking to machines.

A tidy vision, but critics warn the fallout from this could be a massive invasion of privacy. After all, to deal effectively with these day-to-day tasks, computers would have to know as much as possible about everyone and everything.

Drawing connections

That's because the task of even beginning to approach this sort of vision is steep indeed.

[cob:In_Focus]For example, much of what a salesman knows about his contacts is contained not in his Rolodex or contacts management software, but in his head.

When assessing a potential lead, he correlates bits of discrete data, including knowledge about the product he is trying to sell, his prospective target's habits and preferences, indications about the general financial condition of his target and background information about the condition of the economy.

Consequently, he knows you don't try to sell a Rolls-Royce to someone who can't afford to dress really well.

Those are the kinds of data linkages the Semantic Web is meant to facilitate. One difference is that while the salesman's linkages are in his mind, which affords him a measure of privacy, the Semantic Web plan requires linkages to be open, shared and potentially visible to the public.