March 9, 2005 8:11 AM PST
Next big step for the Web--or a detour?
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itself on the fly based on the needs of a particular visitor. Search engines could narrow down results with greater precision.
"This is about connecting the data to its definition and context," Eric Miller, Semantic Web activity lead for the W3C, said in a Tuesday keynote address to several hundred conference participants. "We're moving from a Web of documents to a Web of data.
The W3C acknowledges that existing technologies already satisfy some of the needs the Semantic Web is designed to fill. One is the consortium's XML recommendation for creating highly descriptive and computer-friendly markup languages. Others have to do with rapidly evolving database management systems.
analyst, Burton Group
But Berners-Lee and others developing the new technology envision a comprehensive shift in the way data is exposed to the Web.
"When a large enterprise designs lots of database schemas and XML schemas, the designers are making arbitrary design choices about exactly how to build the system," Berners-Lee said.
"These choices have no actual connection to the real application, yet they are baked into the system," he added. "Anyone who uses the data has to know what these decisions are."
Key goals for the Semantic Web architects include reuse of data and what backers call "recombinant effects."
They hope that by letting computers digest and exchange information about context and meaning--a word that raises the hackles of artificial intelligence critics--they will allow data to survive the systems where it originated and traverse different applications as easily as browsers traverse the Web's billions of pages today. As that data takes on a virtual life of its own, it could be exploited and combined in unexpected and unexpectedly profitable ways, the thinking goes.
"The really exciting thing isn't that you can merge your own data between applications--that's like links on your own Web site," Berners-Lee said. "The really exciting thing happens when others have their data in a mergeable format and make it available. When that public information becomes mergeable, we're in for the next, very pronounced stage of Web evolution."
That brave new world of interchangable data--"exposing data hiding in documents, servers and databases," in Miller's words--elicits both skepticism and alarm from critics of the emerging project.
One concern is that businesses with a Semantic Web presence may have a new headache in trying to prevent information from being unintentionally shared.
"We don't want to have this universal network of knowledge that makes everything accessible to all parties," said the Burton Group's O'Kelly. "Companies need to be circumspect about disclosure."
The W3C, acknowledging concerns about corporate and personal privacy, says it plans a Semantic Web rules system for information
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