Mon. Mar 4th, 2024

A decade after the invention of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee is promoting the “Semantic Web”. The Internet hitherto is a repository of digital content. It has a rudimentary inventory system and very crude data location services. As a sad result, most of the content is invisible and inaccessible. Moreover, the Internet manipulates strings of symbols, not logical or semantic propositions. In other words, the Net compares values but does not know the meaning of the values it thus manipulates. It is unable to interpret strings, to infer new facts, to deduce, induce, derive, or otherwise comprehend what it is doing. In short, it does not understand language. Run an ambiguous term by any search engine and these shortcomings become painfully evident. This lack of understanding of the semantic foundations of its raw material (data, information) prevent applications and databases from sharing resources and feeding each other. The Internet is discrete, not continuous. It resembles an archipelago, with users hopping from island to island in a frantic search for relevancy.

Even visionaries like Berners-Lee do not contemplate an “intelligent Web”. They are simply proposing to let users, content creators, and web developers assign descriptive meta-tags (“name of hotel”) to fields, or to strings of symbols (“Hilton”). These meta-tags (arranged in semantic and relational “ontologies” – lists of metatags, their meanings and how they relate to each other) will be read by various applications and allow them to process the associated strings of symbols correctly (place the word “Hilton” in your address book under “hotels”). This will make information retrieval more efficient and reliable and the information retrieved is bound to be more relevant and amenable to higher level processing (statistics, the development of heuristic rules, etc.). The shift is from HTML (whose tags are concerned with visual appearances and content indexing) to languages such as the DARPA Agent Markup Language, OIL (Ontology Inference Layer or Ontology Interchange Language), or even XML (whose tags are concerned with content taxonomy, document structure, and semantics). This would bring the Internet closer to the classic library card catalogue.

Even in its current, pre-semantic, hyperlink-dependent, phase, the Internet brings to mind Richard Dawkins’ seminal work “The Selfish Gene” (OUP, 1976). This would be doubly true for the Semantic Web.

Dawkins suggested to generalize the principle of natural selection to a law of the survival of the stable. “A stable thing is a collection of atoms which is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name”. He then proceeded to describe the emergence of “Replicators” – molecules which created copies of themselves. The Replicators that survived in the competition for scarce raw materials were characterized by high longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. Replicators (now known as “genes”) constructed “survival machines” (organisms) to shield them from the vagaries of an ever-harsher environment.

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This is very reminiscent of the Internet. The “stable things” are HTML coded web pages. They are replicators – they create copies of themselves every time their “web address” (URL) is clicked. The HTML coding of a web page can be thought of as “genetic material”. It contains all the information needed to reproduce the page. And, exactly as in nature, the higher the longevity, fecundity (measured in links to the web page from other web sites), and copying-fidelity of the HTML code – the higher its chances to survive (as a web page).

Replicator molecules (DNA) and replicator HTML have one thing in common – they are both packaged information. In the appropriate context (the right biochemical “soup” in the case of DNA, the right software application in the case of HTML code) – this information generates a “survival machine” (organism, or a web page).

The Semantic Web will only increase the longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity or the underlying code (in this case, OIL or XML instead of HTML). By facilitating many more interactions with many other web pages and databases – the underlying “replicator” code will ensure the “survival” of “its” web page (=its survival machine). In this analogy, the web page’s “DNA” (its OIL or XML code) contains “single genes” (semantic meta-tags). The whole process of life is the unfolding of a kind of Semantic Web.

By admin