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November 06, 2006


Shilpa Srivastava

Your article is very informative, can you inform about something. Now the web content developed follow some specific formats like keyword density,meta tags etc. Will there be any change in the way content will be written for Semantic web. I mean will the content writers have the liberty to present information in the way they want and don't worry about the usage of keywords to be used often in the content, so that the search engines can pick it.

Michael Flynn

Sorry to double post here - check out the book Nada Brahma if you have not read it.

Michael Flynn

Great article Nova - very clear and concise. Space looks like it was a lot of fun. I look forward to meeting you someday.

Best Regards,

Michael Flynn, Jr.

Jean-Marie Le Ray

Hi Nova,

Brilliant and pedagogical, you've succeeded in your intent to "found the words to communicate what you can clearly see", and I'm very sure that Mr Peter F. Drucker, your late grandfather, is absolutely proud of you.
I would like to translate your "book" above in french for sharing it with french spoken people. It would be quite a long work, but maybe doing one piece today, another tomorrow and so forth, I'd be able to finish it by the end of next month.
Would you authorize me to do so?
Congrats again.
Kind regards,

Nicolas Cynober

Duh! What a visionary article! I've just finished it and it's good from the first line to the end. I've just finished my Master in Web Technologies at Oxford Brookes, and my teachers were all from the W3C. So I've learnt last W3C technologies and of course Semantic Web technologies.
And yes, Semantic Web technologies are mature, we have just to wait ontologies and RDFs descriptions spreading in vertical communities.

Thanks a lot Mr. Spivack for this excellent article, too much often semantic web articles are technicle and obscure (It's true, Semantic Web is still an academic science).

I'm currently working on my Oxford dissertation named "PortalLib: Open component library for a vertical portal" and before I read your article I already planned to implement the semantic issue at different levels (Helping communities creating ontologies, implementing RDFa where I can, etc...). My dissertation will be soon in a draft version, may you could find the time to read some part of it (semantic part)?

Thanks again,
http://cyno.pbwiki.com (Dissertation)
http://nicolas.cynober.fr (Contact)



Thanks for the introduction to the Semantic Web. As a student of Database Systems, I find the topic intriguing. From a technical stand-point, the Internet is based on HTML largely. Hyper Text Transfer Markup Language is simplistic compared to the core of the semantic web which is written in the Resource Description Framework (RDF) along with other standards like XML. RDF is a new data model which has a history. Mr. Spivack did not touch on this history much. I'd like to do so to give anyone who is interested, and idea of how data models evolve.
The Internet is simply a massive database containing an estimated 3 billion web pages, 40 million websites, and 300 million users. You might gather from these rough guesstimates there is a huge base of unstructured data 'out there'. You're right. This means, data models must handle massive amounts of unstructured data in future. RDF is a step in this direction.

We've come so far from the days of the tree-like hierarchical data model system 1st invented for mainframe computers. Yet the original hierarchical data model was conceptually simple. It could handle a 1:M relationship, that’s it. However, the original database was complex to use. Only a highly skilled specialist could use it. It lacked structural independence. There were other disadvantages as well; so eventually a new data model emerged--The Network data model.
This new model was simpler and more versatile. Arguably, one of the most important developments to come from the network model was the data definition and data manipulation languages. Yet, even the network model was still too complex, requiring specialized knowledge. Structural changes required a change in the application program itself. The network model's disadvantages led to new innovations though, just as the semantic web is a solution to the limitations of HTML.
The relational model was the next step. It is still in use today even with the semantic web, and relational DBs are a very important development in the history of data models. With independent tables, the ability to change structure without changing data access or applications along with its conceptual simplicity, SQL ad hoc query capability, and the relational database management system, relational databases are currently the standard. Out of the relational model, but still a part of the same relational model, is the Object Oriented Data Model.
The point I wish to make regarding RDF, is this: it appears to be an extension of the Object Oriented Data Model. The key to the OO model is that each object contains semantic content and semantic visual representations. Since the OODM has come out of a history of database system innovation, I believe RDF may be the next stage in semantic modeling. I'm optimistic about what is to come, and it's clear that innovation comes from focusing on concrete problems.
The philosophical discussion about the ultimate nature of human psychology is interesting, but from a technical standpoint, we are not even close to a high level AI. So whether we can emulate Mind is a separate discussion altogether. The current Semantic Web projects do not claim to emulate human consciousness; however they do claim to develop more sophisticated and useful automated methods of gathering and sharing information about the Universe, inside and out. Why limit this development by evangelizing for the pursuit of the enigmatic and indefinable aspect of Mind instead when the discussion is really about solving information gathering and sharing needs and the mechanics behind this goal?
Why is the semantic web a better way to gather and share info? Because programmers are annotating millions of web pages with extra information basically. How does it work?
XML, XML Schema, RDF, RDF Schema and OWL are the standards used to provide syntax, restrict structures, and express relationships, show relations between classes. And they ultimately are the standards which operate the semantic web's higher level functions. With these standards, machines get metadata about HTML pages outside of what is viewable on the page itself. These standards teach machines how to "think" in more human terms. The Semantic Web also allows users to annotate their own web pages so that automated research can take place.
In closing, data models evolve and the semantic web is the latest evolutionary step. As in evolution, the semantic web experiment strives to serves human interests more effectively. The problems and errors we encounter along the way will be faced, and new solutions posed.

In closing, I'd like to comment on the philosophical issues that arise out of this discussion,
can materialist natural philosophy of science can ever tackle human consciousness due to the inherent philosophical biases of naturalism towards discursive thought. Is Science incapable of studying its own consciousness due to a tendency towards duality? Is the ultimate reality of mind to be found in transcendance of the ego, in emptiness as it were? Even in Buddhist thought, the overemphasis transcending the ego and dwelling in the empty aspect of mind is considered sickness and another form of attachment anyway. So perhaps this aspect of mind is not necessarily that important to emulate anyway, even if it does have some bearing on 'reality'.
Besides, comparing Buddhist psychology and the semantic web seem like comparing apples to oranges to me, especially since High AI is in its infancy. We're jumping way ahead of ourselves if we attempt to emulate transcendant states of mind with computers. What about the projects developers are actually working on today? That is where the meat and potatoes of the semantic web lay. Why don't more people educate themselves on what is actually being done with this technology rather than using it as an excuse to evanglize for a Buddhist meditation retreat? It beats me.

In sum, the Web is a database based on data models. Hierarchical, Network, Relational, and finally ERDM-O/RDM led us to the Semantic Web and the RDFDM. The Semantic Web potentially can improve data sharing and gathering. We should focus on the technical problems inherent in structuring the unstructured data on the web rather than debating psychological subtleties of consciousness, or writing off the scientific ability to study subtleties of mind effectively due to purported philosophical biases towards materialism.
The technical workings of the semantic web, its history, and its future are really the main point here. Thanks for your time. Regards,


I certainly agree with your views on collective intelligence and helping to enable a better world. I agree with your distinction between information and knowledge and how we can look forward to technologies helping us to develop explicit knowledge on the web through multiple connections in context.

When I founded my km consulting firm, Knowledge Associates in 1993, in Cambridge UK, we thought we had the tools and answers to help individuals, teams and organizations better manage their knowledge.

We had no problem at all with tools to help people better capture, store, share, better collaborate, and amplify their knowledge. That works well.

The problem started higher up the km process, with getting organizations to invest in, and getting people to want to create, more meaning through effective ontologies metadata, etc. The problem centred around the ‘harvesting of new learnings and ideas’, and then turning this into better knowledge.

I welcome and support your view that people will now, to a degree, create their own metadata and tagging e.g. flickr and del.icio.us examples. I also welcome new developments in semantic metadata creation tools and techniques.

The other development I observed, whilst chairing many km conferences in Europe, was the debate on the development of content meaning, between ‘structured’ information tools based on logic and metadata on the one hand, and ‘unstructured’ information tools based on pattern recognition, statistical probability theory, and automatic metadata creation, on the other hand.

This reminded me of the analogy with the two hemispheres of the brain. For the brain to function well, in sensing, interpreting and creating meaning, it needs both the logical, digital, interpretation, and it needs the illogical, analog interpretation. I came to the conclusion that the next wave of tools needed both/and and not either/or.

It seems that your thinking has come a long way towards this, since then.

Once these tools are available, I believe that we will then move to the next level of, both people and machines, being able to harvest new learnings and ideas and truly create new knowledge faster and better than ever before.

That’s the quantum leap for me!

Good luck with your developments and tools for 2007.

Ron Young


Hi Prasant, in this article, which is meant for people who may not particularly care to delve into the subtle distinction between dualistic consciousness and non-dualistic awareness, I have used the term "consciousness" to mean "awareness." But you are correct that there is a distinction to be made here. From the perspective of that distinction, consciousness is a dualistic structuring of experience, while awareness is the basic unstructured capacity to experience whatever is experienced -- whether structured or not.



I discovered your writings a few weeks ago and find many of the things you write about very interesting. I haven't finished reading this article about the Semantic Web, but found this bit intriguing:
"But will these machine-minds be conscious? Will they be aware of the meanings they interpret, or will they just be automatons that are simply following instructions without any awareness of the meanings they are processing? I doubt that software will ever be conscious, because from what I can tell consciousness is an immaterial phenomena that is as fundamental as space, time and energy -- or perhaps even more fundamental. [...]

But I think if you really want to create consciousness it's much easier and more effective to just have children. That's something ordinary mortals can do today with the technology they were born with."
Does this conflict with what you write about awareness at LongBets.com? At LongBets you mention that awareness does not have a physical cause. Therefore having children cannot create consciousness. I may be mixing up the idea of awareness and consciousness so please do correct me if I'm wrong. I guess, you can create consciousness by having children since they are conscious OF something/experiences. But you cannot create awareness since it is the absolute, singular non-dual entity that cradles consciousness.


Hi -- thanks for the comment!

First, let's agree not to start a long time-consuming debate on the mind-brain distinction, which at least we can agree neither of us can really prove either way!

But that said, in any case, I believe the mind is a function of the state of the brain, and since brain states are probably quantum states in the end, the state of the mind and the state of the brain are not two distinct things. The mind is like software and the brain is like hardware -- but perhaps they're really more unified, like firmware. But consciousness is something else altogether. I don't think consciousness "comes from" the brain, although it is clearly somehow related to the brain. Similarly, electricity doesn't "come from" a circuit, but it clearly is related to it in some sort of dependently-arising fashion.

As for meaning being "out there" objectively or not -- although there is certainly information "out there" that information is not connected to concepts anywhere else but within minds, or brains, or mind-brains if you prefer. My point is just that the labels and the meanings of those labels are mental, they don't exist on their own, independently of the minds that impute them.

Within systems things may indeed play roles, but unless a human, or something, interprets those roles by attaching them to context, ie. networks of concepts, they don't have "meaning" for anyone. If there were no people at all, and no other intelligent things, then there wouldn't be any meaning to anything. Here I don't mean to imply that the word "meaning" and "purpose" or "function" are equivalent. They are not. Even though meaning is subjective, there may be some objective purpose or function of the life, the universe, and everything. If you happen to know the answer, do tell!


This is such a rich article I feel (note, not think) it may be more appropriate to post small, individual facets as comments.

Unfortunately (as this is tangential to your main thesis) this struck a chord for me:

"The mind is the organ of meaning – mind is where meaning is stored, interpreted and created. Meaning is not “out there” in the world, it is purely subjective, it is purely mental."

I really believe (not think) I disagree. For possibly two different reasons.

The first involves a mind/brain discussion. If you hold that they are the same, then we disagree on two reasons otherwise just one.

Of larger import (given the significance of the statement) meaning may be out there. Just because we cannot connect the dots and state that meaning does not make your point. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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Nova's Trip to Edge of Space

  • Stepsedgestratosphere
    In 1999 I flew to the edge of space with the Russian air force, with Space Adventures. I made it to an altitude of just under 100,000 feet and flew at Mach 3 in a Mig-25 piloted by one of Russia's best test-pilots. These pics were taken by Space Adventures from similar flights to mine. I didn't take digital stills -- I got the whole flight on digital video, which was featured on the Discovery Channel.

Nova & Friends, Training For Space...

  • Img021
    In 1999 I was invited to Russia as a guest of the Russian Space Agency to participate in zero-gravity training on an Ilyushin-76 parabolic flight training aircraft. It was really fun!!!! Among other people on that adventure were Peter Diamandis (founder of the X-Prize and Zero-G Corporation), Bijal Trivedi (a good friend of mine, science journalist), and "Lord British" (creator of the Ultima games). Here are some pictures from that trip...


People I Like

  • Peter F. Drucker
    Peter F. Drucker was my grandfather. He was one of my principal teachers and inspirations all my life. My many talks with him really got me interested in organizations and society. He had one of the most impressive minds I've ever encountered. He died in 2005 at age 95. Here is what I wrote about his death. His foundation is at http://www.pfdf.org/
  • Mayer Spivack
    Mayer Spivack is my father; he's a brilliant inventor, cognitive scientist, sculptor, designer and therapist. He also builds carbon fiber trimarans in his spare time, and studies animal intelligence. He is working on several theories related to the origins of violence and ways to prevent it, new treatments for learning disabilities, and new theories of cognition. He doesn't have a Web site yet, but I'm working on him...
  • Marin Spivack
    Marin Spivack is my brother. He is the one of the only western 20th generation lineage holders of the original Chen Family Tai Chi tradition in China. He's been practicing Tai Chi for about 6 to 10 hours a day for the last 10 years and is now one of the best and most qualified Tai Chi teachers in America. He just returned from 3 years in China studying privately with a direct descendant of the original Chen family that created Tai Chi. The styles that he teaches are mainly secret and are not known or taught in the USA. One thing is for sure, this is not your grandmother's Tai Chi: This is serious combat Tai Chi -- the original, authentic Tai Chi, not the "new age" form that is taught in the USA -- it's intense, physically-demanding, fast, powerful and extremely deadly. If you are serious about Tai Chi and want to learn the authentic style and applications, the way it was meant to be, you should study with my brother. He's located in Boston these days but also travels when invited to teach master classes.
  • Louise Freedman
    Louise specializes in art-restoration. She does really big projects like The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Gardner Museum and Harvard University. She's also a psychotherapist and she's married to my dad. She likes really smart parrots and she knows how to navigate a large sailboat.
  • Kris Thorisson
    Kris has been working with me for years on the design of the Radar Networks software, a new platform for the Semantic Web. He has a PhD from the MIT Media Lab. He designs intelligent humanoids and virtual realities. He is from Iceland, which makes him pretty cool.
  • Kimberly Rubin
    Kim is my girlfriend and partner, and also a producer of 11 TV movies, and now an entrepreneur in the pet industry. She is passionate about animals. She has unusual compassion and a great sense of humor.
  • Kathleen Spivack
    Kathleen Spivack is my mother. She's a poet, novelist and creative writing teacher. She was a personal student of Robert Lowell and was in the same group of poets with Silvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton. She coaches novelists, playwrites and poets in France and the USA. She teaches privately and her students, as well as being published, have won many of the top writing prizes.
  • Josh Kirschenbaum
    Josh is a visual effects whiz, director and generalist hacker in LA. We have been pals and collaborators since the 1980's. Josh is probably going to be the next Jim Cameron. He's also a really good writer.
  • Joey Tamer
    Joey is a long-time friend and advisor. She is an expert on high-tech strategic planning.
  • Jim Wissner
    Jim is among the most talented software developers I've ever worked with. He's a prolific Java coder and an expert on XML. He's the lead engineer for Radar Networks.
  • Jerry Michalski
    I have been friends with Jerry for many years; he's been advising Radar Networks on social software technology.
  • Chris Jones
    Chris is a long-time friend and now works with me in Radar Networks, as our director of user-experience. He's a genius level product designer, GUI designer, and product manager.
  • Bram Boroson
    Bram is an astrophysicist and college pal of mine. We spend hours and hours brainstorming about cellular automata simulations of the universe. He's one of the smartest people I ever met.
  • Bari Koral
    Bari Koral is a really talented singer songwriter. We co-write songs together sometimes. She's getting some buzz these days -- she recently opened for India Arie. She worked at EarthWeb many years ago. Now she tours almost all year long and she just had a hit in Europe. Check out her video, on her site.
  • Adam Cohen
    Adam Cohen is a long-term friend; we were roommates in college. He is a really talented composer and film-scorer. He doesn't have a Web site but I like him anyway! He's in Hollywood living the dream.
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