Home' Technology Review : March April 2007 Contents 66 FEATURE STORY
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make it more searchable. They re part of Oracle s latest,
most powerful database suite, and Hewlett-Packard has pro-
duced open-source tools for creating Semantic Web appli-
cations. Massive scienti c databases, such as the Creative
Commons--a liated Neurocommons, are being constructed
around the new ideas, while entrepreneurs are readying a
variety of tools for release this year.
The next wave of technologies might ultimately blend
pared-down Semantic Web tools with Web 2.0 s capacity
for dynamic user-generated connections. It may include a
dash of data mining, with computers automatically extract-
ing patterns from the Net s hubbub of conversation. The
technology will probably take years to ful ll its promise, but
it will almost certainly make the Web easier to use.
"There is a clear understanding that there have to be bet-
ter ways to connect the mass of data online and interrogate
it," says Daniel Waterhouse, a partner at the venture capi-
tal rm 3i. Waterhouse calls himself skeptical of the "Web
3.0" hyperbole but has invested in at least one Semantic
Web--based business, the U.K. company Garlik. "We re just
at the start," he says. "What we can do with search today
is very primitive."
Melvil Dewey and the Vision of a New Web
For more than a decade, Miller has been at the center of
this slow-cresting technological wave. Other names have
been more prominent---Web creator Tim Berners-Lee is
the Semantic Web s most visible proselytizer, for example.
But Miller s own experiences trace the technology s history,
from academic halls through standards bodies and, nally,
into the private sector.
In the often scr u y Web world, the 39-year-old Miller has
been a clean-cut exception, an articulate and persuasive tech-
nological evangelist who looks less programmer than con -
dent young diplomat. He s spent most of his professional life
in Dublin, OH, far from Silicon Valley and from MIT, where
he continues to serve as a research scientist. But it s no accident
that Zepheira is based in this Columbus suburb, or that Miller
himself has stayed put. Dublin is a hub of digital library sci-
ence, and as the Semantic Web project has attempted to give
order to the vast amounts of infor mation online, it has natu-
rally tapped the expertise of library researchers here.
Miller joined this community as a computer engineering
student at Ohio State University, near the headquarters of a
group called the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC).
His initial attraction was simple: OCLC had the largest
collection of computers in the vicinity of Ohio State. But it
also oversees the venerable Dewey Decimal System, and its
members are the modern-day inheritors of Melvil Dewey s
obsession with organizing and accessing information.
Dewey was no technologist, but the libraries of his time
were as poorly organized as today s Web. Books were often
placed in simple alphabetical order, or even lined up by size.
Libraries commonly numbered shelves and assigned books
to them heedless of subject matter. As a 21-year-old librari-
an s assistant, Dewey found this system appalling: order, he
believed, made for smoother access to information.
Dewey envisioned all human knowledge as falling along
a spectrum whose order could be represented numeri-
cally. Even if arbitrary, his system gave context to library
searches; when seeking a book on Greek history, for example,
a researcher could be assured that other relevant texts would
be nearby. A book s location on the shelves, relative to nearby
books, itself aided scholars in their search for information.
As the Web gained ground in the early 1990s, it naturally
drew the attention of Miller and the other latter-day Deweys
at OCLC. Young as it was, the Web was already outgrowing
attempts to categorize its contents. Portals like Yahoo for-
sook topic directories in favor of increasingly powerful search
tools, but even these routinely produced irrelevant results.
Nor was it just librarians who worried about this disor-
der. Companies like Netscape and Microsoft wanted to lead
their customers to websites more e ciently. Berners-Lee
himself, in his original Web outlines, had described a way
to add contextual information to hyperlinks, to o er com-
puters clues about what would be on the other end.
This idea had been dropped in favor of the simple, one-
size- ts-all hyperlink. But Berners-Lee didn t give it up
altogether, and the idea of connecting data with links that
meant something retained its appeal.
On the Road to Semantics
By the mid-1990s, the computing community as a whole
was falling in love with the idea of metadata, a way of pro-
viding Web pages with computer-readable instructions or
labels that would be invisible to human readers.
To use an old metaphor, imagine the Web as a highway
system, with hyperlinks as connecting roads. The early Web
o ered road signs readable by humans but meaningless to
computers. A human might understand that "FatFelines.com"
referred to cats, or that a link led to a veterinarian s o ce, but
computers, search engines, and software could not.
Metadata promised to add the missing signage. XML---the
code underlying today s complicated websites, which describes
how to nd and display content---emerged as one powerful
variety. But even XML can t ser ve as an ordering principle for
the entire Web; it was designed to let Web developers label
data with their own custom "tags"---as if di erent cities posted
signs in related but mutually incomprehensible dialects.
In early 1996, researchers at the MIT-based World Wide
Web Consortium (W3C) asked Miller, then an Ohio State
graduate student and OCLC researcher, for his opinion on
a di erent type of metadata proposal. The U.S. Congress
was looking for ways to keep children from being exposed
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