A discussion about Semantic Web and its evolution.

For the uninitiated, the idea of a ‘Semantic Web' involves computers being “capable of analysing all the data on the Web – the content, links, transactions between people and computers.” This idea was laid down by one of the founding fathers of the Internet and worked on by researchers later. Dr. James Hendler is an artificial intelligence researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA, and one of the originators of the Semantic Web. Dr. Hendler is at the head of the ‘Tetherless World Constellation' which works to enhance the Web's reach beyond your PC or laptop and develop new technology to that expand the capabilities of the Web

Recently in West Bengal to attend the Kshitij, the Annual Techno-Management festival of IIT Kharagpur, Dr Hendler spoke to eWorld about the evolution of the Web – its early researchers, entrepreneurship in the Indian context and also his pet subject, the Semantic Web and its evolution.

Excerpts from the interview:

eW: Being one of the co-founders of the World Wide Web, what are your impressions on the internet's progress and evolution over the years?

JH: First of all, I have been one of the early researchers of the Internet, but not one of its co-founders. What I work on is one of the new generations of Web technology called the Semantic Web.

When we first got on the Web, there was only one Web page. What is interesting is that over twenty years things have changed a lot and the Web has made a big difference to the world. Yet, we don't really understand it or know about it scientifically. We do not know its economics. It's still hard to guess which things will work on which scale and which won't. There are underlined principles of confrontation and social concepts that we need to understand better to make it grow.

eW: So are you saying that the Web needs to grow further or evolve better?

JH: The Web is changing very fast and it has a very rapid effect on our economy. Consider something like aeroplanes which, as a subject, has been studied all along. On the contrary, the Web has happened so fast and hit so many places that we never really had time to understand it. Many of the periodical works on the Web are being done on the data collected in 1999. In 1999 Facebook didn't exist. Twitter didn't exist. A lot of people study Twitter. But again that is just one thing. Wikipedia has been successful, while most ‘wikis' have failed.

Online, we are now discovering the power of the (individual's) voice and governments do not know how to deal with it.

eW: Proliferation of the Web has brought in the advent of social media. People seem to have found a new voice through those and the very concept of ‘freedom of speech and expression' seems to be undergoing a radical change. Governments are at a loss in dealing with it. How do you see this?

JH: As a scientist I can say that based on our models we see that society tries to solve these problems but that is not the case. In China there are a lot of forums trying to solve real world problems. These people have been empowered by search, which really does not have to happen in the West. So, what happens are social networking sites having a fair amount of rules, which people are trying to use for other things. If the sites allow them, then they do well. But if they don't, people try to find their own ones. What the Internet allows is many workarounds. For example, when I was in China the only people who accessed Web sites there were students because they knew how to get around it. So the real problem is what it means to be a country when you have an underlining society that can get outside it. That's why, I think, government's are so scared, for they own geography but not cyber geography. I think cyber geography is just starting to really get along as a political entity.

eW: When do we see an Indian company making it big in the US? There seems to be a long wait in this regard.

JH: In the West, almost everybody who ends up using a device has access to the internet, compared to India and China where there is a large chunk of the population which does not have access. But access is rapidly growing through cyber cafes and mobile devices. I think it will be impossible for an American company to come in and say we know what India wants.

The reason you saw Google and Facebook is because the first part of the Web was there. If you look at the social networking sites in China then you see that most of them are competing to become the Chinese Facebook and whichever one of them succeeds; you will see them become the biggest in the world. It may not be social networking in India but whoever is the first to figure out what India emerging wants and comes up with a company that makes it happen, that will be a breakout Indian company that will grow in India and then spread the other way (in the West).

The other factor is temperament. A small company always goes through a stage where a big company comes and tries to buys it. It is pretty hard to say no. In India there are lots of start ups and there are no big breaks now. In the US there is a system where they know that if they say ‘no' and their company fails then they will have an option of being hired by some other company.

eW: So by when do you see this next big Indian tech company emerging?

JH: I would be very surprised if we do not see something in the next five years. And maybe I will take a bet that it will happen in the next 10 years. But I think it won't be a Google or Facebook. The Google of India or Facebook of India will not be the same. It will be something else. It will be by an Indian who knows the technology and the people.

eW: What are the prospects of the Semantic Web? People say it still has to evolve; many are as yet unaware of how it functions?

JH: I think one of the reasons that people do not know that Semantic Web is happening is because it is something like what ‘Intel' is. It tells you - ‘Intel inside'. The semantic Web is something like that. It does not tell you ‘Semantic Web inside'. It's already there inside several applications but people using them may not realise that the Semantic Web is already there.

(This article was published on February 12, 2012)
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