A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event from the SDForum in Palo Alto, featuring a series of project demos showcasing real applications built on the Semantic Web. While I was initially skeptical, I came away amazed at the social and semantic intelligence being built into the latest web applications.
The most interesting demos came from Dr. Mor Naaman of Yahoo! - these projects were at once the most real and the least relevant to Semantic Web (at least, in its pure form).
Described as "a toolkit to visualize text (tags) geographically on a map", TagMaps allows the creation of applications that mashup text and geographical information (such as Flickr images) with Yahoo! Maps; Yahoo!'s sample application World Explorer is quite amazing. The most interesting thing about this application is that by combining the geo-tagging information about Flickr images with their corresponding tags and then displaying those tags on a map, the application accurately displays items of interest on the map - this is semantic information that has been extracted from the underlying raw data.
Zonetag can automatically tag your photos with geographical information; in addition, it can suggest tags for the photo based on the location . This makes it easy to tag photos taken on a cell phone with both types of information.
FireEagle, currently in closed alpha testing, is billed as "a new way to share your location with friends or with other websites and services". The main idea is to create a new user location platform that any third-party can leverage to read and write the location of the user.
Any set of Semantic Web demos would be incomplete without an entry from Radar Networks. Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar, presented a demo of their offering, twine [tagline: "using information as context"], which is basically a new social network to which Semantic Web concepts have been applied. twine, currently in closed beta, has been getting a lot of press recently as the first true Semantic Web application.
I have to admit, the demo was quite impressive. Mr. Spivack created a new "twine", assigning a series of web pages, articles and other web information to the twine, and the application extracted a whole range of meaning from the content - automatically assigning tags about topics, people, links, locations, even concepts. It was a cool thing to watch!
While this exercise clearly demonstrated that the underlying technology works, and works well - clearly, great things lie ahead for the Semantic Web - I was less than impressed by the actual application chosen by Radar Networks (maybe I just don't see it yet). Does the world really need another custom home page or social networking application, even one that harnesses the Semantic Web?
Adam Cheyer from SRI presented a demo of an experimental project named CALO. CALO, which stands for Cognitive Assistant Learning and Organizing, is a DARPA-funded project that gathers the user's context and supports dynamic decision-making. In effect, the "software assistant" watches everything you do to learn, so that it can eventually make intelligent suggestions, for example, act as a search assistant or suggest alternate knowledge users for a meeting. A parallel project, CALO Express, is a productized Windows version for commercial use.
An intelligent software assistant is a noble goal, but watching the slides, I wondered if it would get traction commercially - the idea of this virtual assistant watching everything I do was slightly creepy; it's probably a better fit for a more controlled world, such as a defense lab or that perennial Hollywood favorite, a "top-secret government project".
The folks from the legendary Xerox PARC demonstrated Magitti, a "mobile leisure guide". By implicitly collecting information about the user's behavior within their mobile device, the application learns about your interests within a given context; this is then used to guide the user by suggesting other activities by location, time of day and social peer behavior. Again, a good idea, perfect for today's Facebook-fed generation.
Semantic Web or Privacy: Pick one!
The demos were all very cool and worked flawlessly - it is amazing how much meaning can be gleaned by an application by combining data about geography, time, context and peer groups. At the same time, it requires participants to willingly share information in order to avail of the benefits of semantic processing. Is it a good trade-off, one that users are willing to accept? That remains to be seen. As the early commercial applications of Semantic Web become widespread and more easily available, the answer is likely to become increasingly obvious.