I was having dinner with friends last weekend and, while talking about my job and technology and such, one of them remarked, “I’m bored with technology these days. Where’s all the exciting stuff? I haven’t seen anything truly interesting in a long time.” He’s got a point. We’ve reached an odd point in technological innovation in which the future isn’t quite here yet but the past is no longer sufficient.
There is, however, a very real movement pushing us toward Internet v.2. It’s in development at universities and science centers the world over by some of the biggest brains in existence. It’s a framework that will fundamentally change the Internet as we know it. And it’s turned into the whipping boy of tech in recent years, primarily because it’s so complex and nebulous. Drumroll please, it’s…. semantic technology!
I spent last week in Silicon Valley at Web 3.0, a conference devoted to the use of semantic technologies online. Web 3 is not as technically driven as SemTech, the big daddy of semantic conferences. It’s designed, theoretically, to appeal to a broader audience and this year featured panels and speakers on social media, marketing, and advertising. It was a good conference overall, though I found myself wishing for a little less geekery. And I wasn’t alone; I heard anecdotally of an attendee expressing bewilderment at several of the acronyms being thrown around. Even the journalists there to cover the conference seemed flummoxed: Wired’s Epicenter writer Ted Greenwald writes as if he was dropped down onto Mars in the middle of the night.
I don’t mean that as an insult. There are only so many times you can throw around ‘RDF’ and ‘OWL’ before your audience gives up completely. Beneath all the geek-speak and acronyms is something truly exciting, truly game-changing. But the semantic community is having a hell of a time convincing the larger tech world of that.
There are a couple of good reasons for this. One, semantic technology isn’t an actual product; it’s the underpinning of many products. And no one wants to see underpinnings. They’re only interested in shiny facings. Two, applying semantics to the entire Internet is a daunting task and, to many, seems impossible. It’s a lot like artificial intelligence – lovely idea thanks but I’ll believe it when I see the dish-washing robot.
There’s another similarity semantics shares with AI and that’s the old truism that when it’s really working, you won’t know it. So all the conversations and conferences about NLP (natural language processing) and ontologies don’t mean squat to the average consumer – or even many plugged-in early adopters – until they see the resulting products of those acronyms in action.
Siri, a long-awaited personal assistant that finally went public today, is the most user-friendly and understandable application of semantics released to date. It’s a perfect example of technology working without cognizance from the user. Tell it what you want and it finds it – a restaurant, a movie, a taxi, the temperature. It works pretty damn well and it remembers who you are and where you live to deliver better results. Siri is semantics in action and an indicator of what awaits us with Internet v.2. No, it doesn’t work perfectly every time and no, it isn’t the ultimate in semantic products. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.
And what I sincerely hope is that it’s a crack in the intellectual facade of semantic technology. That it will bring the brains out of the university labs and into cubicles to start coding. It’s time to de-geek, sem geeks. Siri has shown what we’re capable of; now let’s start flooding the market with products.