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Tim Berners-Lee Interview at ISWC 2005

The podcast can be found on:

ISWC 2005:


Ina O'Murchu: Tim, you're very welcome to the 4th International Semantic Web Conference here, in Galway. So... how do you like Galway?

Tim Berners-Lee: Great to be here. Well (laughs) ... Well I really like towns like Galway, but I haven't seen very much of this one and the weather of course has been terrible. But Ireland is a beautiful place I know as I got a ride up from the airport from Shannon to Galway so I've seen how beautiful it is but most of the time I have been at the conference, I've been at the conference at the hotel.

IOM: Okay ...and it's been pretty dark and stormy outside ...hardly an incentive to go outside. There's been quite a big turn out here at the ISWC this year and it seems that there are a lot of people coming from very diverse backgrounds and communities, it seems to be catching on, a lot of people seem to be interested in it don't they?

TimBL: Yes, well but I suppose the web technology, as any web technology is just the web of data, and so it effects a lot of people and a lot of people come in from different disciplines you have a lot of people who are interested in the web aspect of it, people who are interested in integrating data from different systems coming in. Lots of different fields, in fact the Semantic Web really is connecting a lot of different fields now we've got this Rules thing attached which has brought in the people who are interested in rules and we've now got the Rules conference on at the end. Not only is it getting bigger but also keeping its diversity of people who really need to come to a conference and talk to each other so they don't form separate groups.

IOM: Well, it's really important that everybody gets involved, isn't it? ... for all the community. It's not so that they're left behind.

TimBL: Yes, we've seen a lot of people from what used to be called AI now there is some relabelling going on they haven't all necessarily been to the same conferences before.

IOM: So overall, I mean, the whole grand view and vision of the Semantic Web, how long you've been working on Semantic Web, and can you give me a brief overview or a brief picture of what the Semantic Web exactly is?

TimBL: Ok, right, brief how long have you got...ok. I'll try. I've been working on Semantic Web since I've been working on the web, which is basically since 1989. The idea was the web should be a web for all media and now it's media in the sense of multimedia it's media in the sense of information for people Like web pages, like movies, like ... sounds so all the things produced by people and absorbed by people. The web has proved to be a space for. But the data out there which actually is also not so exciting perhaps but really important part of our lives, like economic data and data that runs the business is not on the web. So when you go to a website, ...and it's got data behind it in fact cos it's for example the weather website. And you've got somebody wants to use it you're the sort of person that uses a computer, uses data on the computer, say you use it for a spreadsheet and you can't at the moment pull that data up into your spreadsheet. So the Semantic Web is about making that possible, but really is just completing the web vision. So we've been working on it for long time, and it just we ended up getting distracted by the others things that seemed more important at the time like multimedia.

IOM: OK. So, this is part be continued.

TimBL: If you like.

Uldis Bojārs: At the industry day you also had a presentation to big companies. It is clear that they have a problem of enterprise data integration and this extended web, Semantic Web would prove beneficial to them. So I don't doubt that companies will be happy with the semantic web or should be. In fact, is that so?

TimBL: The Semantic web is the web-like thing, it's network of things. Its valubale only if other people do it. So the difficulty in industry is being the first mover. First person to put the data all into a standard language doesn't get so much benefit from it. They get to use standard tools but they don't get the serious benefit until suddenly they discover that the other data that they deal with provided by other people is also in that same system, in the same framework and they find that they can get the value out of combining that data. So I think that some people in the industry are sceptical in deciding, don't want to be first mover. Other people in industry have the vision to realize that this is going to be very important for the future. And in fact they want to be one of the first movers because that way they'll be better involved, better equipped, they'll have people understand what's going on so they are starting to hire people involved in the Semantic Web and do all the modelling how their business works so they can be on board quickly.

UB: So they're investing in the future and they are smart to do that. That's the part about companies, but now about people. I've been getting questions from people who're enterpreneurs, consultants, but mostly one, two person companies, they're not big enterprises. They ask, why should we care about Semantic Web, should we care, should we learn about it?

TimBL: I think, that the way small businesses work is very much as a network. A big company can try to be self sufficient. But a small company works only by getting products from things half-formed, materials from one company and providing them to another one. So the business community in small and medium enterprises is really important. Semantic web allows you to do things like take the set of products. Suppose you make pieces of plastic of given sizes, you can write that down in RDF on the web and that will allow somebody to process automatically, if, another, they have, say, whole set of suppliers, and everyone puts that information out there on Web, on the Semantic Web they will be able to process it automatically. Binding together companies in a way between small enterprises is more natural than with large enterprises. Large enterprises, they tend to experiment with information technology like this internally first. They did with the web. They prefer to use it for internal communication where they have huge problems. And then only when they have a lot of trust in it, will they very carefully expose data to general public.

UB:In fact this person was involved with social networks and analysis of social networks so for him there should be even more benefit.

IOM: Well, the Semantic Web, I mean, there's obviously a lot of challenges, a lot uphill and, well, way to go yet. So, what in your opinion, Tim, are the main challenges of the Semantic Web?

TimBL: Well I just spoken for an hour and which most of the slides had challenges on them. There are challenges in getting the ... I suppose, putting enough energy into different areas so they use the Semantic Web for their data so that suddenly find that the areas start to connect and you get the added value so thats the snowball problem of pushing it down the hill to the point where it starts to roll by itself. We're not at that point, but it was amazing that the conference that we just had so many people pushing, a growing number of people pushing the snowball that it's definetely going faster and faster, that is very clear. There's some big challenges in how to make user interfaces for people to browse the web. There are big problems also in what I call breadcrumbs. How do you leave pointers around the Semantic Web to show a machine where to look for the things? At the end of the day I'd like to be able to ask my machine a random question and for it -- if I use the right terms -- for it to be able to go and look up the answers. How does it go out and find its way around? For the Semantic Web, there are challenges there, there's huge amount of work going on all over it, just looking around the papers in the poster sessions makes that obvious.

IOM: So do you see Semantic Web itself enabling online communities and ... you know these virtual communities that have popped up of late ... and if yes, how?

TimBL: Well I think a lot of the online communities in fact can be done with using Semantic Web technology under the cover so for example things that of Friend of a Friend use these Semantic Web technologies just cause it is most natural way of making using publishing data in an extensible and reusable... way. I think,that we may see Friend of a Friend extended, so as more people publish more and more information about their results for example their publications, so that we end up with a net of publications. And then nets of projects, then nets of companies ... . I think that because it is so viral I think it will be a way those online communities work. I think what might be interesting when we have online communities which are actually about recording data.So,for example,like people who go around recording where cellphone towers are. Now people go around with a GPS recording what sort of stores are in places or getting more information about buildings or hills or tracking where the foothpaths really are are you can imagine communities building maps by themselves, by just taking around GPS receivers. All this work around, photos, labeling them with whose in them, and where they were taken, starting to connect these things together. I think we could...have both Semantic Web technology supporting online communities, but at the same time also online communities can also support Semantic Web data by being the sources of people voluntarily connecting things together.

IOM: Uldis, do you have any more questions?

UB: We have one, simple one. Will children use the Semantic Web?

TimBL: Well, I think there's two questions.

Will people individually use Semantic Web? I think yes, some, I think it will be maybe more complicated than browsing the web ... it will be like using a spreadsheet instead of using a web processor. But I don't know what the interface will look like, I think there's a lot of competition on what's the best way of browsing all this data.

Will children do it? Yes, of course, they will do it. I hope that the interface, the human interface, for the Semantic Web will be simple, clear and easy to use, but if it is a bit difficult and complicated then children will probably do it first.

IOM: For sure. Okay, Tim, listen, thanks very much for your time today.

TimBL: You're welcome.

IOM: And safe journey back.

TimBL: Thanks for having us all here in Galway.