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Other critics have questioned whether the
ontologies designed to translate between dif-
ferent data descriptions can realistically help
computers understand the intricacies of even
basic human concepts. Equating "post code"
and "zip code" is easy enough, the critics say.
But what happens when a computer stum-
bles on a word like "marriage," with its com-
peting connotations of monogamy, polygamy,
same-sex relationships, and civil unions?
A system of interlocking computer de ni-
tions could not reliably capture the con ict-
ing meanings of many such common words,
the argument goes.
"People forget there are humans under
the hood and try to treat the Web like a data-
base instead of a social construct," says Clay
Shirky, an Internet consultant and adjunct
professor of interactive telecommunications
at New York University.
It hasn t helped that until very recently,
much of the work on the Semantic Web has
been hidden inside big companies or research
institutions, with few applications emerging.
But that paucity of products has masked a
growing amount of experimentation. Mill-
er s W3C working group, which included
researchers and technologists from across aca-
demia and industry, was responsible for set-
ting the core standards, a process completed
in early 2004. Like HP, other companies have
also created software development tools based on these stan-
dards, while a growing number of independent researchers
have applied them to complicated data sets.
Life scientists with vast stores of biological data have been
especially interested. In a recent trial project at Massachu-
setts General Hospital and Har vard University, conducted
in collaboration with Miller when he was still at the W3C,
clinical data was encoded using Semantic Web techniques so
that researchers could share it and search it more easily. The
Neurocommons project is taking the same approach with
genetic and biotech research papers. Funded by the scienti c-
data management company Teranode, the Neurocommons
is again working closely with W3C, as well as with MIT s
Computer Science and Arti cial Intelligence Laboratory.
Gover nment agencies have conducted similar trials,
with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA) investing heavily in its own research and proto-
type projects based on the Semantic Web standards. The
agency s for mer Infor mation Exploitation O ce program
manager Mark Greaves, who oversaw much of its Semantic
Web work, remains an enthusiastic backer.
"What we re trying to do with the Semantic
Web is build a digital Aristotle," says Greaves,
now senior research program manager at Paul
Allen s investment company, Vulcan, which
is sponsoring a large-scale arti cial-intelli-
gence venture called Project Halo that will
use Semantic Web data-representation tech-
niques. "We want to take the Web and make
it more like a database, make it a system that
can answer questions, not just get a pile of
documents that might hold an answer."
Into the Real World
If Miller s sunset epiphany showed him the
path forward, the community he represented
was following similar routes. All around him,
ideas that ger minated for years in labs and
research papers are beginning to take root in
But they re also being savagely pruned.
Businesses, even Miller s Zepheira, are adopt-
ing the simplest Semantic Web tools while
putting aside the more ambitious ones. Entre-
preneurs are blending Web 2.0 features with
Semantic Web data-handling techniques.
Indeed, if there is to be a Web 3.0, it is likely
to include only a portion of the Semantic Web
community s work, along with a healthy smat-
tering of other technologies. "The thing being
called Web 3.0 is an important subset of the
Semantic Web vision," says Jim Hendler, pro-
fessor of computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
who was one of the initiative s pioneer theorists. "It s really a
realization that a little bit of Semantic Web stu with what s
called Web 2.0 is a tremendously powerful technology."
Much of that technology is still invisible to consumers, as
big companies internally apply the Semantic Web s e cient
ways of organizing data. Miller s Zepheira, at least today, is
focused on helping them with that job. Zepheira s pitch to
companies is fairly simple, perhaps looking once again to
Dewey s disorganized libraries. Businesses are awash in
inaccessible data on intranets, in unconnected databases,
even on employees hard drives. For each of its clients, Zeph-
eira aims to bring all that data into the light, code it using
Semantic Web techniques, and connect it so that it becomes
useful across the organization. In one case, that might mean
linking Excel documents to payroll or customer databases,
in another, connecting customer accounts to personalized
information feeds. These disparate data sources would be
tied together with RDF and other Semantic Web mecha-
nisms that help computerized search tools nd and lter
information more e ciently.
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