Google exec challenges Berners-Lee

Director of Search says Net pioneer's Semantic Web vision could be hamstrung by incompetent Web masters.

A Google executive challenged Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee on his ideas for a Semantic Web during a conference in Boston on artificial intelligence.

On Tuesday, Berners-Lee, the father of the Web and the current director of the World Wide Web Consortium, gave the keynote on artificial intelligence and the Semantic Web at a conference sponsored by the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI).

He said the next stage of the Web is about making data accessible for artificial intelligence to locate and analyze. A Semantic Web, a Web with linked data easily readable by machines, would make available more knowledge for reuse in serendipitous applications by people and organizations who are not the ones who originally created or published the information, Berners-Lee said.

The speech covered Berners-Lee's known proposal for Web developers to use semantic languages in addition to HTML. He stressed the importance of using persistent URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers) and RDF (Resource Description Framework) for identifying information. Consistent use of these specifications, said Berners-Lee, will allow the Semantic Web to maintain the collaborative nature the World Wide Web was originally intended to have.

At the end of the keynote, however, things took a different turn. Google Director of Search and AAAI Fellow Peter Norvig was the first to the microphone during the Q&A session, and he took the opportunity to raise a few points.

"What I get a lot is: 'Why are you against the Semantic Web?' I am not against the Semantic Web. But from Google's point of view, there are a few things you need to overcome, incompetence being the first," Norvig said. Norvig clarified that it was not Berners-Lee or his group that he was referring to as incompetent, but the general user.

"We deal with millions of Web masters who can't configure a server, can't write HTML. It's hard for them to go to the next step. The second problem is competition. Some commercial providers say, 'I'm the leader. Why should I standardize?' The third problem is one of deception. We deal every day with people who try to rank higher in the results and then try to sell someone Viagra when that's not what they are looking for. With less human oversight with the Semantic Web, we are worried about it being easier to be deceptive," Norvig said.

"While you own the data that's fine, but when somebody breaks and says, 'If you use our enterprise system, we will have all your data in RDF. We care because we've got the best database.' That is much more powerful," Berners-Lee said. To illustrate his stance, he used the example of bookstores initially withholding information on stock levels and purchase price but then breaking them as others did.

Berners-Lee agreed with Norvig that

"Google is in a situation to do wonderful things, as it did with the Web in general, and add a whole other facet to the graphs--the rules that are testing which data source. It will be a much richer environment," Berners-Lee told the search giant executive.

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