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Tread Softly

By   /  February 16, 2012  /  No Comments

Two posts here on SemanticWeb.com over the past few days resonated with themes to which I seem to return with increasing frequency. First, Angela Guess pointed to a GigaOM interview with fellow Semantic Link podcaster Andraž Tori, then Jennifer Zaino picked up on the Global Futures Forecast‘s [PDF] enthusiasm for ‘the Semantic Web.’

Andraž is CTO of Zemanta, a company that began life in the small European country of Slovenia before spreading its wings to London and the US. Ever since I first met Andraž and became aware of Zemanta’s usefulness, it has been one of a very small number of tools that — to me — epitomise the real power and usefulness of semantic technologies. There are, of course, plenty of semantic technologies that are better at handling formal classification of data. There are plenty that cope an awful lot better at scale. There are plenty, even, that do a better job of seamlessly and flexibly knitting together facts and assertions from across the web. But Zemanta (and TripIt, my other perennial favourite) don’t make a big issue of their semantic smarts. They don’t — really —make you change your behaviour very much in order to derive benefit. They just help you get something done, quicker, easier, and better than you would have done it without them. TripIt, for example, gets travel arrangements into my calendar (where I need them), faster than I could type them in myself. But that’s just an ancillary benefit of all the other stuff that the site is doing to my travel details on my behalf.

In the GigaOM piece, Andraž is reported as talking about us

entering the age of the smart personal assistant, as computers increasingly listen and understand what we’re saying and fulfill our requests and questions in real time.

Listening. Understanding. Anticipating. Fitting the way that we work, rather than forcing us to work like they do. Siri is clearly one example of this, but Zemanta, TripIt, and others are also in the space. It’s not really about delivering the Virtual Personal Assistant that the pre-Apple Siri wanted to become. Rather, it’s about finding a small itch to scratch (getting relevant pictures in my blog post), a small problem to fix (keeping track of my travel plans) and intelligently leveraging semantics to do something useful. They don’t set the world alight. Their internal gubbins don’t send semtech geeks into paroxysms of ecstatic joy. They don’t make anyone millions. But they solve my problems. Easily. Painlessly. Regularly. With modest humility. I really wish there were more like them.

And then, at the other end of the scale, James Canton of the Institute for Global Futures is the latest to herald the coming of the all-powerful Semantic Web;

Starting to emerge this year will be Web 3.0. Where 2.0 was about social interaction, 3.0 is about deep connections with data and an attempt to make the web more accurate, smarter and useful when you’re searching. Having the web become more intuitive to know, getting to know you and your personalized needs as a more useful front end. The back end will be a new set of standards that will attempt to connect ideas, sentiments, personalized meanings together in a more learnable network – recognizing what you mean and want, the personalization of information. Faster, more accurate, more useful and intuitive – maybe even more cognitive and capable of learning in real-time about what you need. That is what the Semantic Web will attempt to deliver on.

Whilst it’s always good to see the outside world taking note of the Semantic Web, there’s very little evidence that this will somehow become a year for break-out growth of the grand Semantic Web ideal. Most of what Canton predicts has been predicted before, many times over. Are we, yet again, being built up into something too big, too grand, too powerful, and therefore being doomed to disappoint once more?

Semantic technologies — and the Semantic Web — are already real. They are already being used in a wide range of settings every single day, and they are delivering real value.

But maybe we’ll all get on an awful lot better if we’re more like Zemanta and less like “the year of Web 3.0.”

Image by Martin Eklund.

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