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Initial Threads

Even Berners-Lee admits that the path to the Semantic Web may be a bit slower than that to the World Wide Web. “In a way we don’t need to move too fast,” he says, “because the theory people need to look at it to make sure we’re not too crazy, and other people need to check out the ideas in practice before they’re picked up and used too extensively.”

When asked to peek into his crystal ball, the evangelist of exchangeable data predicts that some of the Semantic Web’s first commercial applications will aim to integrate the different information systems that typically coexist in large organizations. (Wouldn’t it be nice to take care of business at the motor vehicle department or hospital without having to fill out a half-dozen largely redundant forms? The Semantic Web can help here.)

And even though the Semantic Web still resides chiefly on the drawing board, you can see hints of its power on some existing Web sites. Consider Moreover Technologies’ search engine that crawls thousands of news sites several times a day, making it a favorite for news junkies. Moreover’s software agents have been programmed to look at the font tags (the HTML labels that tell Web browsers how large or small to make the text appear on the screen) to determine whether or not a particular page is a news story. If a Moreover agent finds a string of six to 18 words tagged as large type near the top of a page, it will assume it is a headline and place it in a database. Of course, since the agent is only making a guess, sometimes it selects a page that isn’t news after all. So Moreover has to apply additional filtering to get rid of pages that don’t contain articles.

That’s still a far cry from the ultimate goal-but it’s a good start. And even the Semantic Web champions don’t pretend to grasp exactly where such steps will lead. After all, who predicted or eBay back when Berners-Lee turned on the switch of the world’s first Web server in December 1990?

But the point is that people want more intelligence from the Web than they’re getting-and a growing number of computer scientists share the twinkle in Berners-Lee’s eye, and the feeling that the Semantic Web holds the answer. “It’s great,” says the inventor of the World Wide Web, “to have that grass-roots enthusiasm around again.”

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