SWSA panel

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Thursday, October 7, 2021, saw a panel of three founding members of the Semantic Web research community, who each have been my teachers and mentors over the years: Rudi Studer, Natasha Noy, and Jim Hendler. I loved watching the panel and enjoyed it thoroughly, also because it was just great to see all of them again.

There were many interesting insights and thoughts in this panel, too many to write them all down, but I want to mention a few.

It was interesting how much all panelists talked about creating the Semantic Web community, and how much of an intentional effort that was. Deciding that it needs a conference, a journal, an organization, setting those up, and their interactions. Seeing and fostering a sustainable research community grown out of an idea is a formidable and amazing effort. They all mentioned positively the diversity in the community, and that it was a conscious effort to work towards that. Rudi mentioned that the future challenge will be with ensuring that computer science students actually have Semantic Web technologies integrated into their standard curriculum.

They named a number of the successes that were influenced by the Semantic Web research work, such as Schema.org, the heavy use of SPARQL in supercomputing (I had no idea!), Wikidata (thanks for the shout out, Rudi!), and the development of scalable graph databases. Natasha raised the advantage of having common identifiers throughout an organization, i.e. that everyone refers to California the same way. They also named areas that remained elusive and that they expect to see progress in the coming years, Rudi in particular mentioned Agents and Common Sense, which was echoed by the other participants, and Jim mentioned Personal Knowledge Graphs. Jim mentioned he was surprised by the growing importance of unstructured data. Jim is also hoping for something akin to “procedural attachments” - you see some new data coming in, you perform this action (I would like to think that a little Wikifunctions goes a long way).

We need both, open knowledge graphs and closed knowledge graphs (think of your personal ones, but also the ones by companies).

The most important contribution so far and also well into the future was the idea of decentralization of semantics. To allow different stakeholders to work asynchronously and separately on parts of the semantics and yet share data. This also includes the decentralization of knowledge graphs, but also in the future we will encounter a world where semantics are increasingly brought together and yet decentralized.

One interesting anecdote was shared by Natasha. She was talking about a keynote by Guha (one of the few researchers who were namechecked in the panel, along with Tim Berners-Lee) at ISWC in Sydney 2013. How Guha was saying how simple the technology needs to be, and how there were many in the audience who were aghast and shocked by the talk. Now, eight years later and given her experience building Dataset Search, she appreciates the insights. If they have a discussion about a new property for longer than five minutes, they drop it. It’s too complicated, and people will use it wrong so often that the data cleanup will become expensive.

All of them shared the advice for researchers in their early career stage to work on topics that truly inspire them, on problems that are real and that they and others care about, and that if they do so, the results have the best chance to have impact. Think about problems you can explain to people not in your field, about “how can we use triples to save the world” - and not just about “hey, look, that problem that we solved with these other technologies previously, now we can also solve it with Semantic Web technologies”. This doesn’t really help anyone. Solve new problems. Solve real problems. And do what you are truly passionate about.

I enjoyed the panel, and can recommend everyone in the Semantic Web research area or any related, nearby research, to check it out. Thanks to the organizers for this talk (which is the first session in a series of talks that will continue with Ora Lassila early December).


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