Imagining the Internet (8): the Semantic Web

This is a tough question because of the many technical complexities related to the Semantic Web. It might have been more accessible if phrased in terms of something generic – say, increasingly automated actions processed through browsers and Web-based agents.

Q.8 – Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

A. By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and his allies will have been achieved to a significant degree and have clearly made a difference to the average internet users.

B. By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee will not be as fully effective as its creators hoped and average users will not have noticed much of a difference.

[my answer: A]

Please explain your choice and share your view of the likelihood that the Semantic Web will have been implemented by 2020 and be a force for good in internet users’ eyes.

[elaboration]

“So many benefits will accrue from intelligent agents, and machines talking more effectively to other machines, that it’s hard to imagine the world without them in 2020. Aside from questions about just how much “intelligence” agents and machines will acquire, however, there’s a bigger question as to whether all this functionality will come out of the Semantic Web as envisioned by Berners-Lee. Certainly average Internet users have come to expect ever-increasing functionality from their browsers. The Web browser is their window on the Internet at large – to the extent that many people I talk to are stunned to learn that the Web and the Internet aren’t the same thing. Moreover, browsers have absorbed many other free-standing online services, like email and FTP, which have become a seamless part of the browser experience.

“Millions of Web users and publishers stand to benefit from the grand scheme represented by the Semantic Web, and some of its enabling technologies are bound to achieve success. But it faces a number of major obstacles. First, competitive issues. Not everyone subscribes to the vision expounded by Berners-Lee. There’s probably a lot of money to be made here, a compelling reason for some developers to create solutions outside the Semantic Web framework. Second, technical issues. Natural language is rife with ambiguity, a nasty problem that has plagued machine-assisted translation for decades. It’s hard to imagine the Semantic Web as an end-game, with humanoid agents able to operate free of human intervention. Third, social issues. The very success of such a radical UI paradigm will pose threats to end-user control and privacy. The more the Semantic Web succeeds, the more we should be concerned about what we’re forfeiting to our agents and those who create them. This is just the kind of effort mainstream onliners are unwilling or unable to make, even when their money and identities are at stake. In other words, the Semantic Web should not be seen as entirely benign. Once out of the lab, it will have to contend with the many frailties, and occasional bad faith, of the creatures it’s intended to help.”

[update]

Jan.12 – Looking back over my responses to this point, I seem to have brought up risks to privacy in several different contexts. In Canada, we’re pretty vigilant about privacy. The CRTC, for example, called for greater online privacy protection in its October 2009 ITMP decision (see para 103). Yet even this level of official vigilance hasn’t dispelled my anxieties about privacy getting pretty much disappeared by 2020. I haven’t thought about the reponses collectively, but I wonder if I’ve overlooked other significant themes – like free speech, to take one example. Back to that one another time.

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