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Creating a global brain

Google? That's old school. Intelligent new Web 3.0 applications will revolutionize the way we interact with the world's data

Globe and Mail Update

The World Wide Web as we know it is a mess. There is no organizational scheme, no oversight committee, no editorial standards, nothing to limit its growth—just millions of people adding new documents and data all the time, wherever and whenever they please, to an ever-expanding pile.

And what a glorious mess it is! The democracy and freedom that reigns on the Web today has led to an explosion in creativity perhaps unrivalled in history. Never before have so many been able to publish so much so easily. Never have we had so much data available to us. Of course, this surfeit of information can make finding what you want a bit of a hassle, and things are becoming more difficult all the time as the signal-to-noise ratio continues to diminish.

Luckily, a growing community of entrepreneurs and scientists is helping us sift through all this data and, most importantly, bring context to it.
Right now, the information that we find on the Web is flat. We can search a company's website to find the name of its CEO, but from that point forward we have to remember that relationship ourselves. When we see that CEO's name mentioned on another website, perhaps funding some new business venture, we have the ability to put that information in context only because we know and understand who the person is. The next generation of intelligent web applications will be able to discover and remember relationships like that automatically. In effect, there will be a new layer of meaning on top of the information on the Web today. This evolutionary shift is commonly referred to as "Web 3.0," and it will revolutionize the way we interact with the world's data. This is the semantic Web, and its goal is nothing less than to create a global brain.

The visionary behind this is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the same man who had the vision to combine hypertext with Internet protocols back in 1989, inventing the World Wide Web. Rather than going into business and potentially becoming one of the Web's billionaires, Berners-Lee has remained an academic and continues to seek ways to improve upon his invention. His vision (along with that of colleagues James Hendler and Ora Lassila) for a semantic Web was laid out in an article in Scientific American in May, 2001. Ever since then, semantic technologies and standards have slowly been maturing, and this year will be a major turning point as several new companies come online and finally start to turn Berners-Lee's vision into a reality.

Which of these companies will find a market and survive the competition is impossible to determine, but the fact that so many of them are finally bringing their versions online is encouraging. If these concepts catch on and start to gain acceptance, then 2008 might turn out to be the greatest year for information organization since 1876—the year a young assistant librarian at Amherst College named Melvil Dewey got so fed up with the disorganization that reigned in libraries that he devised a system for classifying and ordering books using a series of decimal numbers.

Collective Knowledge Systems
The real power of the semantic Web will be realized in applications that bring together people to add content, organize information and build connections between different kinds of data. These applications will build on the success of Web 2.0 social technologies and become more intelligent as their user bases grow.

Freebase The first major Web 3.0 application open to the general public is Freebase. Founded by artificial intelligence guru Danny Hillis—best known for developing the Connection Machine, the world's first massively parallel supercomputer, at MIT in the early 1980s—the goal of Freebase is to become "an open, shared database of the world's knowledge." It already covers more than three million topics, leveraging dozens of freely accessible databases from sources as diverse as the Securities and Exchange Commission archives, U.S. census data, and MusicBrainz's massive collection of information about bands and albums.

Freebase users can add their own databases to the system and create new connections between different types of data. It might be easiest to think of Freebase as a highly structured, database-powered Wikipedia. The main difference is that while Wikipedia stores information in the form of articles, Freebase stores specific facts and statistics. It also features an open application programming interface (API) that allows developers to build applications against these data sets and recombine them in interesting ways. A small company called Dipity is using this API to allow people to use the information in Freebase to create timelines of events, such as the life of Douglas Adams or the history of film noir. Another company, Archiportal, combines Freebase with Google Maps to allows users to search through the work of dozens of famous architects.

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