Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Future of Knowledge is Becomming Clearer

The internet (you may have heard of it - it's a big deal) when it first got going, was predicted to be like TV, but better, as Kevin Kelly says in this speech. It has obviously become something much greater than that, and its future is becoming clearer with recent developments, a few of which I will briefly discuss here.

The power of the internet that we will see in the short future will have something to do with combining the increasingly massive amounts of useful data on the web, such as all of MIT's publications, which were voted last week to be made available for free on the web, and increasingly efficient searching and knowledge synthesis programs, such as Wolfram Alpha, scheduled to open in May. I quote from Stephen Wolfram's blog:

"...what about all the actual knowledge that we as humans have accumulated? A lot of it is now on the web—in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text. But we can’t compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can’t figure anything new out. So how can we deal with that? Well, some people have thought the way forward must be to somehow automatically understand the natural language that exists on the web. Perhaps getting the web semantically tagged to make that easier. But armed with Mathematica and NKS I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable. It’s not easy to do this. Every different kind of method and model—and data—has its own special features and character. But with a mixture of Mathematica and A New Kind of Science automation, and a lot of human experts, I’m happy to say that we’ve gotten a very long way. But, OK. Let’s say we succeed in creating a system that knows a lot, and can figure a lot out. How can we interact with it? The way humans normally communicate is through natural language. And when one’s dealing with the whole spectrum of knowledge, I think that’s the only realistic option for communicating with computers too."

Wolfram Alpha is a search engine that receives questions in the form of natural language, and uses vast amounts of data accumulated from the web to answer them. This is a Knowledge Engine that computes factual answers from the huge, currently unorganized databank that is the internet. And, it works quite well, according to this review article. This combination of scientific data and knowledge generators will be revolutionary. For instance, the evolutionary biologist, John Hawks has a short article on how this technology could make bioinformatics obsolete

Another interesting catalyst is the linked data movement that Tim Berners Lee (the inventor of the world wide web) is starting. His TED talk about the subject is wonderful, but to surmise the concept, linked data is about using the web to connect data, information, and knowledge that wasn't previously linked. It's all about getting raw data out there to be linked to and from to similar or related concepts and ideas, to create a more fluid, integrated, effective and expansive internet.

The future interactive nature of the web "of things" will combine this informative data to actual objects in the real, sensory world that we interact with, using live cameras connected to the internet via mobile phones with image recognition capabilities, to label the world in increasingly minute and precise ways, with informational tags in real time, as I briefly discussed in my post about Photosynth. What is most interesting to me about this future that is becoming more and more clear is that this interactive web of things will not be merely a real time tagging of sensory information, but a real time linking of these quanta of information. In the same way that our brains link all the data that is stored in our memories throughout our lives to connect our sensory inputs in ways that make sense given our past experience, the internet will be using all human knowledge to link our real time sensory data in creative and informative ways.

No comments: