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On the road to the Semantic Web

Metaweb, Powerset, Radar Networks, and True Knowledge are hoping to make the Semantic Web a reality. It's going to be a very long beta cycle.

The Semantic Web has been just around the corner for a few years. It turns out that bringing a semantic layer of metadata to the Internet is like climbing a mountain in flip-flops.

Tuesday night, Semantic Web mountain climbers Powerset, Radar Networks, and Metaweb participated in a salon at Powerset's San Francisco office, where I talked with them about their product plans.

Powerset gives wings to Wikipedia
I got a preview of Powerset's search engine, which is due to go into beta in the coming weeks, according to co-founder and CTO Barney Pell and as reported by TechCrunch.

Powerset differs from Google and other mainstream search engines in that it linguistically parses sentences, finding subjects, verbs, objects, synonyms, and other elements using a highly sophisticated, language-independent parser licensed from Xerox PARC).

Powerset then extracts and indexes concepts, relationships, and meanings, rather than keywords. (I wrote about Powerset when it first came out of stealth mode, in June 2007.)

Rather than trying to boil the search ocean, compete with Google, and deal with spam and 20 billion documents, Powerset has focused its initial efforts on giving wings to the 3 million pages of Wikipedia.

Hakia's semantic search engine also indexes Wikipedia and other sources. However, Powerset returns a more comprehensive dossier of results for queries, based on deep analysis of Wikipedia pages and other content, and also provides new ways to navigate and discover facts on the individual Wikipedia pages. More details to come when Powerset officially launches its public beta version.

Powerset plans to index the Web at some point (at a significant cost, in terms of servers and bandwidth). For now--or more precisely, when the company allows the public access to its technology--Wikipedia users will be the beneficiaries of a powerful semantic index and user experience.

True Knowledge
I also got a look at True Knowledge's search engine. Company CEO William Tunstall-Pedoe said the search engine is in private beta for now, with about 7,000 users.

Unlike Powerset and other search engines, Cambridge, England-based True Knowledge is building its own knowledge base. Users input facts, as in Wikipedia, but in a more structured manner. In addition, True Knowledge imports data from sources, including Wikipedia, in the form of discrete facts, such "Sacramento is the capital of California."

Queries, including those in natural language, are parsed for machine reading, and they access the repository of facts accumulated. True Knowledge can make inferences, such as in the following example.

True Knowledge

The capability to infer truths based on the data repository would be a welcome feature for Wikipedia, which doesn't have an automated method for dealing with contradictions.

Barney Pell (Powerset), William Tunstall-Pedoe (True Knowledge), Nova Spivack (Radar Networks), Paul Davison (Metaweb) Dan Farber/CNET News

Another San Francisco Semantic Web start-up, Metaweb, was also a participant in the salon. The company's Freebase is more similar to True Knowledge than Powerset.

Freebase is an community-built database with a large corpus of open data sets, including Wikipedia and MusicBrainz. Powerset includes some Freebase-structured content in its index, and True Knowledge could add Freebase data to its knowledge repository.

Radar Networks' Twine
I also chatted with Nova Spivack, co-founder and CEO of Radar Networks. His company created Twine, an application combining bookmarking, blogging, and RSS reading, with an underlying semantic engine to tie the pieces of data together.

Spivack said Twine has about 7,000 users in private beta, as well as 40,000 standing in line for access. Half of the users have created private Twines, with corporations and closed communities of interest using the service for collaboration.

Major enhancements are planned for the summer and fall, including allowing for complete customization of the user interface. "We have only surfaced a bit of the platform so far. Twine as a platform will integrate with other applications, such as blogs, catalogs, social communities, and corporate sites," he told me.

"It's an enormous multiyear project," Spivack said. It's not like a Google beta or a 1.0 version masquerading as a beta." The same could be said of the other Semantic Web services in the room. It's going to be a very long beta cycle.