Nova Spivack on Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web

New Digital South has been undertaken a series of interesting interviews; the latest one with one of the technology thinkers that I respect most: Nova Spivack. (in fact, I know of no other analyst with such a clear and realistic vision of the further development of collaborative technologies)

Please note that our wiki keeps an extensive directory of such interviews, and that Bimal Shah also undertook an interview on peer to peer a few weeks ago.

A sample question from the interview:

3. I believe Twine ( is Radar Networks first product that helps people track their interests, using the Semantic Web and collective intelligence. Can you tell us more about the Semantic Web and the collective intelligence?

The Semantic Web is about the pendulum swinging to the back-end infrastructure of the Web. That is, it is about fundamentally upgrading the quality of the data on the Web.

Current Web2.0 technologies like AJAX have brought about huge improvements that remain quite valuable, particularly with regards to user interfaces. Web2.0 has enabled the social Web, and that aspect of the Web isn’t going away – in fact, its going to continue to grow. When you look at our product Twine, in fact, it resembles any of a number of existing Web2.0 services, like Facebook and FriendFeed for example. To be sure, we’ll start to see more and more of the inherent intelligence of the Semantic Web delivered at the level of the interface, but for the most part the real innovation right now is going on “under the hood,” so to speak.

There is a set of Semantic Web standards approved by the W3C, things like RDF, OWL, and SPARQL that are helping us do the heavy lifting of making information – and thus computers – smarter. These technologies are enabling the next generation of the Web.

RDF, for instance, is potentially as important as HTML. Just as HTML enabled a universally reusable Web of content, RDF enables the Data Web, a universally reusable Web of data. The Web browser is a universal client for content, but not really for data. Web browsers can render any content written in HTML in a standard way. That was a big leap back in the early 1990’s. Previously each type of content required a different application to view it. The browser unified them all — this separation of rendering from data made life easier for programmers, and for end-users. A single tool could render any data because the data carried metadata (HTML) that described how to render it.

But currently although browsers can render the formatting and layout of data, they don’t know anything about the actual meaning of that data. The same is true for all applications today — they have to be explicitly programmed in advance to interpret each kind of data they need to use.

The Semantic Web provides a solution for this problem that is analogous to what HTML did for content — RDF and OWL provide a standard way to describe the meaning of any data structure, such that any application that speaks these languages can correctly interpret the meaning without having to have been explicitly programmed to do so in advance. The data becomes self-describing.

In other words, the Semantic Web offers the promise of a universal client for data. That would be a big improvement over how applications are written and how data is managed and stored today. It’s a significant back-end level upgrade, and it requires not only that data is represented differently, but new tools for managing it (new kinds of databases, new API’s, new forms of search, etc.).

There’s also an added benefit to the Semantic Web — one which is sometimes over-emphasized, and that is the idea of reasoning. The rich semantics of the RDF and OWL languages enable metadata that not only describes the meaning of data, but also the logical relationships between data and various concepts.

This richer metadata can be used to support machine reasoning, such as simple inferencing, across data on the Web. That’s powerful and will enable a whole new generation of smarter applications and services — the Intelligent Web. However exciting, I think that this is rather far off in the future still. Today, just making the Data Web would be a huge innovation. Transforming the Web from a distributed file-server to a distributed database is a huge enough step on its own.

The Semantic Web will catalyze a new era in collective intelligence. Individuals, groups, organizations and communities will be able to create, connect, find and share knowledge more intelligently and productively than ever before. Ultimately it will enable the Web itself, and all the people and applications that participate in it, to become more collectively intelligent.

In the long-term, the Semantic Web provides a way to move much of the “intelligence” that currently resides in the minds of individuals, groups and organizations, and/or that is hard-coded into various software and Web applications, out onto the Web itself. It provides a way to virtualize knowledge and intelligence in an explicitly machine-readable, universally accessible form. In other words, it provides a way to start making the Web “smarter.”

Knowledge and expertise that previously only existed in people’s heads, or had to be painstakingly coded into each particular vertical software application, will be represented in a form of universally readable metadata on the Web – just like HTML documents today. In other words, using the Semantic Web you can publish knowledge and even the underlying conceptual frameworks, rules and heuristics that embody domain expertise, on the Web in an abstract, machine-readable form.

As more pools of domain knowledge are added to the Web around various verticals, all applications will potentially benefit. This sets up a kind of network effect in which a global knowledge commons begins to form and self-amplify over time. For example, first the travel domain is added to the Semantic Web. Then someone else adds domain knowledge about geography and links them together. Another group then adds domain knowledge about hotels, and another one adds domain knowledge about weather – and these all connect to each other in various ways.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.