Why some are disenchanted

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In a comment to my last blog entry, Christopher St John wrote:

"I suffered through the 80's Knowledge Representation fad, both academically in the AI program at Edinburgh and as a practitioner at the only company ever to produce a commercial system written in Prolog (that wasn't a Prolog development system.) So I'm familiar with the problems that the Semantic Web effort is attempting to address. Having slogged through real-life efforts to encode substantial amounts of knowledge, I find some of the misty-eyed musings that surround the Semantic Web effort depressing. That "most information on the Web is designed for human consumption" is seen as an obstacle surmountable via tools like RDF is especially sad. On the other hand, I'm always happy to make use of the cool tools that these sorts of things seem to throw off. There's probably a certain Proverbs 26:11 aspect to it as well."

Thanks for your insightful comment, and being new to the field I certainly appreciate some report based on real life experience - and I have to admit to probably be faulty of being misty-eyed myself more than once about the Semantic Web (and probably will be in the future as well).

'"Most information on the Web is designed for human consumption" is seen as an obstacle'. Yes, you are right, this is probably the worst phrased sentence in the Semantic Web vision. Although I think it's somehow true: if you want the computer to help you dealing with today's information overflow, it must understand as much of the information as possible. The sentence should be at least rephrased as "most information on the Web is designed only for human consumption". I think it would be pretty easy to create both human-readable and machine-friendly information with only little overhead. Providing such systems should be fairly easy. But this is only about the phrasing of the sentence - I hope that every Semwebber agrees that the Semantic Web's ultimate goal is to help humans, not machines. But we must help the machines in order to enable them to help us.

The much more important point that Christopher addresses is his own disenchantment with the Knowledge Represenation research in the 80s, and probably by many people with the AI research a generation before. So the Semantic Web may just seem as the third generation of futile technologies to solve AI-complete problems.

There were some pretty impressive results from AI and KR, and the Semantic Web people build on that. Some more, some less - some too much even, forgetting the most important component of the Semantic Web underway: the Web. Yes, you can write whole 15-page papers and file them to Semantic Web conferences and journals and not even once mention anything web-specific. That's bad, and that's what Christopher, like some researchers, does not see as well, the main difference between this work two decades ago and today's line of investigation. The Web changes it all. I don't know if AI and KR had to fail - it probably must have failed, because they were so many intelligent people doing it and so there's no other explanation than that it had to fail due to the premises of its time. I have no idea if the Semantic Web is bound to fail as well today. I have no idea if we will be able to reach as much as AI and KR did in their time, or less, or maybe even more. I am a researcher. I have no idea if the things I do will work.

But I strongly believe it will and I will invest my time and part of my life towards this goal. And so do dozens of dozens other people. Let's hope that some nice thing will be created in the course of our work. Like RDF.

Originally published on Semantic Nodix

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