The man who gave us the World Wide Web is now working on a way to make computers grasp the context of its information.
Tim Berners-Lee is the inventor of the World Wide Web. Nowadays we take the Web for granted, and we regard it as synonymous with the Internet. But they are different things. The Internet has been around since 1969, and Berners-Lee invented the Web in 1991.
Before the Web, only the technically skilled could navigate the Internet. Berners-Lee’s remarkable insight was to use hypertext to jump between different pages on the Internet. The concept of hypertext, which allows words to be linked to other words in the same file or different files, had been around for 30 years or so and had already appeared in a few programs.
Berners-Lee saw that hypertext could be applied to the Internet. This was done by means of three simple bits of technology known by their acronyms: URL (Universal Resource Locator), which gives each Web page a unique address; HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), which is a protocol for transferring text and graphics over the Internet; and HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which describes how that text and graphics should be displayed.
Without those technologies the Internet was a confused jumble of different files on different computers, with no common way of accessing them and no easy way of unscrambling them when you did. From Berners-Lee’s remarkable insight it was a short step to the Internet browser, invented shortly afterwards by Marc Andreessen, who went on to co-found Netscape. About the same time, the US Congress authorised the commercial use of the Internet, and the rest is history.
Berners-Lee did not profit greatly from his invention. At the time that he conceived it he was employed by CERN, the European nuclear research organisation. He is now director of the Word Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the non-profit coordinating body for Web development. His work still involves conceptualising where the Web is headed and how to get it there.
Much of Berners-Lee’s work today is to do with what he calls the “Semantic Web”. The term has been used for a couple of years now, by Berners-Lee and others, to describe a significant extension of the power of the Web by embedding within it the power to understand the context of the information it contains.
The Semantic Web will not happen quickly or easily but Berners-Lee and others working on it are sure it is inevitable. They have set out their ideas in the April, 2002, issue of Scientific American, a special online edition about the future of the Internet. The whole issue can be downloaded from scientificamerican.com for $US5 on your credit card.
“The Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning,” Berners-Lee and his co-authors explain in their article. “This better enables computers and people to work in cooperation.
“The first steps in weaving the Semantic Web into the structure of the existing Web are already under way. In the near future, these developments will usher in significant new functionality as machines become much better able to process and understand the data they merely display at present.”
In the Semantic Web, data contained in Web pages will be coded with information that will enable computers to make sense of it. We are part of the way there, with XML (Extensible Markup Language, an extension of HTML) and emerging Web Services protocols, but the Semantic Web will enable intelligent software agents to carry out many of the searches and transactions that can now only be done by humans.
The idea of intelligent agents, or “knowbots”, has been around for some time. It makes sense to use software to navigate software. For example, you may be after a particular book at the best price. You can visit every Web bookseller you know, and do a Web search for the book, and compare all the prices. This takes time, and it would be easier if you could just tell your computer to trawl the Web for the best price.
For that to happen, the Web needs to be much more intelligent than it is now. There is no uniformity to the way data is structured on the Web, and building a knowbot to do a simple job such as finding a cheap book is impossible the way the Web currently works. The Semantic Web, says Berners-Lee, will solve that problem. In his 1999 book Weaving the Web, he explains his dream.
“Machines will become capable of analysing all the data on the Web – the content, links and transactions between people and computers. The day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines, leaving humans to provide the inspiration and intuition.”