Baby Steps for the Semantic Web

Stephen DeAngelis

February 14, 2007

Many futurists believe the next step for the World-Wide Web will be the advent of a Semantic Web sometimes called Web 3.0 [see my earlier post on Web 3.0]. The fabled Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) just announced that it is licensing its natural language technology to a start-up called Powerset [“In a Search Refinement, a Chance to Rival Google,” Miguel Helft, New York Times, 9 February 2007]. Powerset hopes that building its search engine on PARC’s technology will give it a leg up in the race to contend with Google in the search engine arena.

“The start-up, Powerset, is licensing PARC’s ‘natural language’ technology — the art of making computers understand and process languages like English or French. Powerset hopes the technology will be the basis of a new search engine that allows users to type queries in plain English, rather than using keywords. … The challenges facing it are immense, and the odds of success are low. But the PARC technology, which is a result of 30 years of research, is certain to lend it an aura of credibility. PARC’s natural-language technology is among the ‘most comprehensive in existence,’ said Fernando Pereira, an expert in natural language and the chairman of the department of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. But by itself, it will not guarantee Powerset’s success, Mr. Pereira said. ‘The question of whether this technology is adequate to any application, whether search or anything else, is an empirical question that has to be tested,’ Mr. Pereira added. As part of the deal, a leading natural-language researcher at PARC, Ronald M. Kaplan, will join Powerset’s staff of about 40 as chief technology and scientific officer. PARC will also receive an equity stake in Powerset and earn royalties from the company. Additionally, Powerset will sponsor a handful of researchers at PARC. … The company does not expect to release its search engine to the public until the end of this year.”

PARC and Powerset are not alone in the quest to help create the Semantic Web.

“Other start-ups and several of the search giants are also working to develop natural-language search technology. The appeal is clear. A successful natural-language search engine could, in theory, answer real questions — for example, what companies did IBM acquire in the last five years? — that existing search engines are not equipped to handle. And it could turn the process of finding information on the Web into a conversation between the search engine and the user. … Researchers have predicted breakthrough applications for natural languages for years, but the technology has proved usable in only limited contexts, turning many experts into skeptics about its potential, at least in the short term.”

PARC, which is credited for inventing Ethernet technology, graphic user interfaces, and the mouse, adds a cachet to Powerset that other start-ups don’t enjoy. Powerset had access to PARC technology because Xerox, in 2002, “spun off the center into an independent subsidiary and sought to prove that it could sustain itself by licensing technology and forming partnerships with outside companies.” Although Helft indicates that the odds of success for Powerset are low, another article indicates that “where you live often trumps who you are” [“When it Comes to Innovation, Geography is Destiny,” by G. Pascal Zachary, New York Times, 11 February 2007]. Based in Silcon Valley, Powerset certainly hopes that improves its odds.

“Just ask Sim Wong Hoo. About seven years ago, I met Mr. Sim in Singapore, where he was born and was then living. He talked about the rising creativity of Singaporeans and with a flourish, as if to dramatically make his point, he pulled out a prototype of a hand-held music player that he insisted would replace Sony’s famous Walkman. Mr. Sim’s device was breathtaking, possessing all the elements of what we now know as the MP3 player. Yet today, a Silicon Valley icon, Apple, dominates the market for MP3 players with the iPod. In recognition of its emergence as a music powerhouse, last month Apple dropped the word “computer” from its name. Some months after my Singapore encounter, I visited the thriving code-writing communities in Tallinn, Estonia; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Helsinki, Finland, three Nordic cities that were being transformed by advances in cellphones, mobile computing and the Internet. Their tight-knit network of engineers seemed poised to create the tools required to make good on a much-hyped prediction: the death of distance. After all, if necessity is the mother of invention, no one had more need than the hardy Estonians, Icelanders and Finns, living on the frozen edge of Europe, when it came to killing distance as a barrier. Yet these Nordic innovators were blindsided by two Silicon Valley engineers whose tools we experience whenever we ‘Google’ the Web. Their company, Google Inc., posted a quarterly profit of $1 billion on Jan. 31. Google’s astonishing rise and Apple’s reinvention are reminders that, when it comes to great ideas, location is crucial. “Face-to-face is still very important for exchange of ideas, and nowhere is this exchange more valuable than in Silicon Valley,” says Paul M. Romer, a professor in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford who is known for studying the economics of ideas. In short, ‘geography matters,’ Professor Romer said. Give birth to an information-technology idea in Silicon Valley and the chances of success seem vastly higher than when it is done in another ZIP code.”

That is what I was talking about when I commented on Professor Yoko Ishikura’s idea that businesses need to “act globally, think locally” [HBR 2007 Breakthrough Ideas, Part 02]. I wrote: In the information age, when connectivity is so ubiquitous, some people still appear surprised that some human interactions need to occur face-to-face. Virtual meetings and video teleconferences have not replaced face-to-face encounters. Certain business sectors (like IT, biotech, and financial services) cluster into regions because people still need to meet with one another in person. This is not a new idea, but it is one that we need to be reminded of occasionally. That’s basically what Zachary is talking about.