I just spent two days at the Semantic Technology Conference in San Jose, Calif. About 1,200 people attended over the course of the event, up from some 300 about five years ago, when it first launched. What became pretty clear was that semantic technology has a long way to go before having any transformative impact on our lives, at least based on the nearly dozen interviews I had conducted.
Sure, we're a long way from Ask Jeeves, a pioneering search engine that focused on natural language more than a decade ago. But we're far from the computer assistant in Iron Man, a movie in which industrialist playboy Tony Stark works with a sophisticated talking computer to construct a suit of armor. The talking computer is semantic technology pretty close to its finest, I'd imagine.
The more formal definition of semantic technology, at least based on Wikipedia, is that it "encodes meanings separately from data and content files, and separately from application code. This enables machines as well as people to understand, share and reason with them at execution time. With semantic technologies, adding, changing and implementing new relationships or interconnecting programs in a different way can be just as simple as changing the external model that these programs share."
At its simplest explanation, I take this to mean that the ultimate goal of semantic technology is about getting software or computers to discern meaning like a human. If semantic technology is about training and educating computers to better understand words and concepts, then we can assign an age to it.
Some said semantic technology was two years old. TextDigger CEO Tim Musgrove said it was in sixth grade.
Andrew Tomkins, Chief Scientist at Yahoo Search, said it was four-years-old, and "just ready for kindergarten."
Tom Imielinski, SVP of global Search and Answers at Ask, said it was "autistic," meaning it had all the information and ability to make large computations, but didn't know how to socialize.
"Semantic technology is roughly 2300 years old," said Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google. "Aristotle did the most to get it started. You might say it is only 150 years old, going back to Boole and Frege.
"But regarding its IQ, we can't really assign a consistent mental age. Semantic Technology is not like a typical 7-year, say; it is more like an idiot savant -- far more advanced than any human in some areas, and below a typical three-year-old in other areas."
I said that perhaps it was either a very ignorant adult or a very savvy toddler. Here's what Dave Mccomb, the co-founder of Semantic Technology Conference and the founder of consulting firm Semantic Arts, said:
"It's an adolescent: Gangly; sure of itself; unabashed, but immature and unproven," he said. "In terms of what grade it's somewhere between a cat and a dog ( the cat probably knows a lot but won't share it, the dog is eager to let
us know everything it knows.). Neither one gets a grade."