notes from semtech2009

June 19, 2009

I’m at SFO with three hours to kill, and not many brain cells left, after spending the week at the Semantic Technologies Conference. I am, it turns out, so short on functioning brain cells that I’m writing a blog post, after all these months of self-censoring because I didn’t have anything worth saying here.

The dominant question at SemTech was whether we’ve finally reached the point in the adoption curve where (to mix 2d curve metaphors) it’s all downhill from here. Has this thing really caught on? Can we just coast and let the Semantic Web take over the world now?

I still think there are some vital pieces of the architecture missing, but I can’t deny that more and more people seem to “get it”, and be spreading the word. People I’ve never even heard of. That’s a pretty good indicator.

Of course, maybe they don’t really get it. I’m not quite sure anyone really gets it, since they don’t seem to notice those missing pieces.

I was happy to see Evren Sirin talking about their work at Clark and Parsia on using OWL for integrity constraints. I’m not sure they’ve got it quite right — it’s hard to tell — but I’m really glad they are trying.

What else?

The divisions within the community are still great. You have the rules folks, who really don’t get this whole Description Logic thing. You have the Description Logic folks who usually try to not be too condescending to the rules folks. We have the natural language folks, who I still mostly ignore.

RIF is pretty badly misunderstood and mis-characterized. That might not be my fault, but it’s kind of my responsibility. As one step, I put a little more time into starting a RIF FAQ this afternoon. Feel free to send me more questions that I don’t know how to answer.

Looking over my notes…

Peter Rip had some words of wisdom for startup founders that I think may apply much more broadly. He said to predict your own behavior, then live up to it. That’s what gives people confidence in you. So step one is know thyself, eh? I’m working on it, I’m working on it. One of the things I think I’ve learned about myself is that I don’t want to found a startup, despite all the fantasies about it, ever since ninth grade. What’s changed, I think, is that I’m being more realistic about what it would do to my life, what it would cost. (I suppose at some level, I’ve always known that, since I never actually did start a company with employees.)

Allegro Graph 4.0 filled me with triplestore lust. I don’t know if it could live up to the impression Jans painted of it, but … I want one. Interestingly, I didn’t feel envy; perhaps I’m also ready to give up on the fantasies of writing a killer triplestore.

In the Semantic Search session, David Booth and someone I don’t know separately expressed the concern that computers are getting too smart for our own good. Not really in the Skynet sense, but in the sense that when google tweaks their algorithms, in ways even they don’t understand, or the web just shifts a little, suddenly you can’t find some page any more. I thought Peter Norvig looked apologetic, when he responded with a terse “use plus as a workaround!”. I need to remember that more, when I get frustrated with Google not really doing keyword searching. Conclusion: make sure the compu-smarts always have an off-switch, and that humans never forget where the off-switch is.

I’m a big fan of Tom Gruber, but I’d short sell Siri if it were publically traded. I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. All the arguments he makes for agent computing are compelling, but my gut says thumbs down. Could it be because there is (as far as I know) not a drop of SemWeb technology in there? I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s that I can’t imagine it will actually work better than more conventional alternatives. People don’t want an assistant; they want tools that are simple yet powerful enough for them to complete the task themselves. It’s a bit like GUI vs command-line. But who knows… (I wonder how this bunch of folks from SRI decided to name their new company and product SIRI. Odd….)

Data Portability. Wow, is this a difficult space. I am not optimistic here, either. I think we have many years of stumbling around in our future on this one. And that’s even if facebook isn’t being evil. On the plus side, the community is starting to realize what a hard problem it is. I’ve heard that admitting you have a problem is a good place to start. Still, the meme that there exists a quick solution, if we just get a few smart people together, … it’s damn compelling.

And here we are, going backward in time, back to the first session I attended, Monday morning, from some freebase folks (Jamie Taylor and Colin Evans). I should play with freebase more. If I ever get back to playing with scripts to manage my movie collection, I should probably use their movie data instead of IMDB. Jamie kept saying great things about W3C; I wanted to ask him why they don’t just join, but though I saw him many more times at the conference, he was always walking by in a hurry.

It’s not like I could have made much of a case, anyway. One of the problems with the W3C’s current business model is that folks no longer join W3C just because they (a) use our stuff, and (b) think we’re cool. They actually want business value in return for their dues! Losers.

(How do you measure the business value of a standard existing, anyway? In most cases, it’s a commons problem, where lots of folks get enormous value from the standard, but we don’t know how to monetize that. We can only charge for being part of the conversation when the standard is drafted, and sometimes that doesn’t seem to be worth very much.)

Speaking of W3C, OWL 2 went to CR last week. I think that was my most challenging round of publications yet. Do I say that every time? Still, stepping in as editor of rdf:PlainLiteral, and doing the whole transition process, in the midst of a getting a new manager, … it was challenging.

I’m not actually worried about the CR phase itself. OWL 2 looks pretty darn good. Until SemTech, I was a bit worried about us getting RL implementations, but several people mentioned they planned to try it, and after a while I realized it’s kind of a no-brainer. If you play in the SemWeb space and have a rule engine (as many folks do), why wouldn’t you give OWL RL a try? Of course, you might not get around to running all the test cases, and reporting back by July 30, but at this poing I’m no longer very worried about it.

Okay. One hour to flight time. That’s better. Have fun on the ground, everyone.

(topics I’m leaving out: Ian Horrocks taught a kick-ass class in description logics. The Jena team are pretty optimistic about their post-HP future (as am I). I’m sad that Jamie Taylor didn’t understand the need for 303 redirects.)

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