The 2006 Semantic Technology Conference was more interesting than I expected. The crowd was older and much more formally dressed and there was far less emphasis on open source solutions than any conference I’ve attended in a long time but it wasn’t merely a vendor schmoozefest.
James Hendler and Ora Lassila’s Semantic Web @5 keynote claimed that Semantic Web technologies have made great strides over the past five years. They pointed out that middle levels of the Semantic Web layer cake are mature and higher levels are subjects of funded research (in 2001 lower and middle levels were mature and research respectively). Near the end they made a strong call to “share; give it away!” — open source tools, datasets, and harvesters are needed to grow the Semantic Web.
My presentation on Semantic Search on the Public Web with Creative Commons went fairly well apart from some audio problems. I began with a hastily added segue (not in the slides) from the keynote, highlighting Science Commons’ database licenseing FAQ and Uniprot. Questions were all over the map, befitting the topic.
I think Uche Ogbuji’s Microformats: Partial Bridge from XML to the Semantic Web is the first talk I’ve heard on microformats that I’ve heard from a non-cheerleader and was a pretty good introduction to the upsides and downsides of microformats and how GRDDL can leverage microformats for officious Semantic Web purposes. My opinion is that the value in microformats hype is in encouraging people to take advantage of XHTML semantics in however a conventional in non-rigorous fashion they may. It is a pipe dream to think that most pages containing microformats will include the correct
profile references to allow a spec-following crawler to extract much useful data via GRDDL. Add some convention-following heuristics a crawler may get lots of interesting data from microformatted pages. The big search engines are great at tolerating ambiguity and non-conformance, as they must.
Ogbuji’s talk was the ideal lead in to Ben Adida’s Interoperable Metadata for a Bottom-Up Semantic Web which hammered home five principles of metadata interoperability: publisher independence, data reuse, self-containment, schema modularity, and schema evolvability. XML, RDF/XML, Microformats, GRDDL, and RDF/A were evaluated against the principles. It is no surprise that RDF/A came out looking best — Adida has been chairing the relevant W3C taskforce. I think RDF/A has great promise — it feels like microformats minus annoyances, or microformats with a model — but worse is better may say otherwise. The oddest response to the talk came from someone of the opinion that [X]HTML is irrelevant — everything should be custom XML rendered with custom XSLT when necessary.
I was somewhat surprised by the strong focus of most talks and vendors on RDF and friends rather than any other “semantic technologies.” Doug Lenat was one exception. He apparently claimed last year that Cyc by this year would be growing primarily through machine learning rather than input by knowledge engineers. A questioner called Lenat on this prediction. Lenat claimed the prediction came true but did not offer any quantatative measure. It looked like from the slides (unavailable) that Cyc can have databases and similar described to it and may access same (e.g., via JDBC), giving it access to an arbitrary number of “facts.”
If there was a theme that flowed through the conference it was first integrating heterogenous data sources (I don’t recall who, but someone characterized semantic technologies as liberating enterprises from ERP vendors) and second multiplying the value of that data through linking and inference.
Mills Davis’ closing keynote blew up these themes, claiming outrageous productivity improvements are coming very shortly due to semantic technologies, including a Ray Kurzweil slide. The conference hotel fire alarm went off during the keynote, serving as a hype alert to any willing to hear.
SemTech06 reinforces my confidence in what I said in the SemWeb, AI, Java: The Ontological Parallels mini-rant given at SXSW last year. Too bad they rejected my proposal for this year:
Semantic Web vs. Tags Deathmatch: Tags are hot, but are they a dead end? The Semantic Web is still a research project, but will it awaken in August, 2009? People in the trenches fight over the benefits and limits of tags, the viability of officious Semantic Web technologies, what the eventual semantic web will look like, and how to bridge the gap between the two.
I’m off to SXSW tomorrow anyway. My schedule.