The Web's Father Expects a Grandchild

Tim Berners-Lee is working on the Semantic Web, with its richer information links that unlock the power of unplanned reuse of data

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in the late 1980s while working as a researcher at the Geneva-based European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). He's now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., where he holds the 3Com Founders chair at the Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. Berners-Lee is also the director of the nonprofit World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a group of 400 companies and organizations that collaborate on standards and technologies for the Web.

His recent work concerns development of the "Semantic Web," a scheme that could someday put virtually all the data in the world online. Instead of just linking static pages, as with today's Internet, the Semantic Web will join together vast repositories of information now locked up in corporate or public databases, linking it all together through intelligent recognition of patterns and intersections among disparate information sources.

Berners-Lee recently spoke with Andy Reinhardt, BusinessWeek's tech correspondent in Paris, about the evolution of the Internet, how it can improve productivity, and obstacles to innovation. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How has the Internet changed the process of innovation?

A:

Looking back to 1989, when I was proposing the Web, my personal need was to use it as a tool for innovation, to bring volunteer software engineers from different physics labs together in an informal collaboration to produce common software, rather than just writing their own. Even though they were in different labs in different countries, [the idea was] to make the sum greater than the parts. The original goal was that the Web should be a sort of play space.

There are a lot of tools that have come a long way, and people work from all kinds of places. But I still think we've got a long way to go. We need to use machines to help us manage ourselves socially more: To help us manage meetings, to take minutes, keep track of action items, keep track of what we've got to do, what we've passed off to other people -- all the social interactions in an organization.

Q: Do you think the plain old Web and the ability to find things so quickly and to link them so easily have had a productivity impact on innovation?

A:

I do think it's a step in productivity, but it's a finite step. For instance, a lot of people are still using slide shows that don't have hypertext links in them. That doesn't allow people to author collaboratively. In a lot of enterprises, the challenge is to make the innovative power of a group greater than the power of one person. If one person has a germ of an idea, but it's not a whole idea, how do you take that partly formed idea and expose it to his colleagues? That's an exciting thing.

The craving that people have for things like Wikis and Web logs, and the extent to which they're being used, demonstrates this need for collaborative spaces. But the Wikis and blogs are still very crude. They both approach this need for an intuitive collaborative space from different angles.

Q: You're working now on the Semantic Web, which will allow richer associations among data and, as the name implies, start to create a sense of "meaning" in online information. Where are things heading?

A:

The impact of the Semantic Web will be different from [today's] hypermedia Web. The Web is very visible. You can see it through a Web browser, and it's very easy for people to get a feel for what it is because it's really a space for human beings.

The Semantic Web is different. It's a space of data. It's all the information which is now in databases, spreadsheets, and application-specific files, like calendar files or photo metadata. What's exciting about the Semantic Web is its potential for serendipity, the unplanned reuse of data. The effect will be even more powerful for the Semantic Web because you won't have to be a person following the links. A machine will be able to follow links.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A:

Say you're looking for a photograph in a certain state. And you have another photograph somewhere with a ZIP code. The machine understands that we're talking about location, and a Semantic Web search engine could actually go out and learn, find the logic on the Web, and then know that when something is in a given ZIP code, it's also in a given state. So, a search by state would also be able to find things categorized by ZIP code.

That's a very simple, even trivial example. But the point is that the person who wrote the correlation between ZIP codes and states and put it out on the Web didn't know who was going to use it and for what. And in fact, somebody has used it to turn a request for photographs that wasn't going to work into one that does.

The effect is that when you have an idea, you can go out and test it against what everybody else knows. That will be very much more powerful. In the world of databases, this would be called a database join. But maybe nobody has ever thought before about joining those two databases.... That power of being able to reuse data will be very important, and frankly, when you're looking at a major innovation challenge, like finding new drugs, a cure for AIDS or cancer, these involve so much data from so many different fields that we're going to need the Semantic Web to be functional before we can crack those.

Q: How close are we to the realization of that vision?

A:

I'd guess 5 to 10 years before we really have the Semantic Web humming, and we have large systems being used by scientists as a matter of course. It will be 10 years before we get to the state, like with the Web now, where you can be sure the information is there, and you're shocked if it's not

It'll be 10 years before we have all the health information about drugs out there. I would expect then to be able to swipe a bar code on a package and get back any allergy information. Or in the supermarket, I should be able to swipe a bar code and find out from the Semantic Web whether it contains peanuts. It's so obviously valuable to have that information, so obviously in the public good, and it can obviously be connected with other information.

Hopefully, we may get to the point in 10 or 15 years where all information is on the Semantic Web.

Q: What's your take on the general state of innovation these days?

A:

Would it be possible to develop the World Wide Web in today's climate? If you say "innovation" around here, the typical word association would be "patent." That's a negative association, not a positive one. There's a very strong fear that the rush to patent everything will stifle innovation. The ability to patent really silly, un-novel, boring things which just clutter the space of potential innovation makes it a minefield for somebody who's really being innovative. It prevents them from brainstorming and putting together a whole lot of half-formed ideas into something really effective, because each of those half-formed ideas is blocked by patents.

You can't talk about innovation without a big question mark about whether business can be grown up about patents and actually let software engineers develop things without squabbling over intellectual property rights in such a way as to stifle innovation.

Q: People in the U.S. are waking up to the negative effects this is having on innovation, and in Europe, there's a big argument over software patents.

A:

Yes. Over the last five years, we've been trying very hard at the World Wide Web consortium to get industry together so that they can put down standards for infrastructure, whether Web services or the Semantic Web or multimedia portable devices. And they realize that there's a huge potential market there which will work if and only if the infrastructure standards are available royalty-free.

I think there's been a huge learning process. Some of the big companies now realize that it's essential that they have a royalty-free space for the infrastructure or it's not going to take off.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE