In the early days of the web, the focus was on how content looked. The central focus on page layout, and how the content was arranged on a page was based on a page-centric model carried over from print. The goal was to replicate newspapers, magazines, and catalogs online. Creators were totally focused on providing an experience as visually engaging as print with the limited bandwidth of the early web. The problem is that this page-centric model for content completely ignores the dynamic nature of the web. Once a page is printed on a printing press, it is an unchangeable static physical object. A web 'page' is a dynamic editable virtual object, it can be connected to data that is continuously changing and can be personalized on the fly to suit the needs of individual users.
In order to take advantage of the power of the web, content needed to be liberated from the confines of the page. The focus of the content model needed to shift from layout to meaning. Content should be structured according to its meaning and its relation to other content, completely independent of how it is presented on any particular device. With the proliferation of connected devices and channels, desktop, mobile, IoT, voice-based, and chat, separating content from the presentation layer is critical to the efficient distribution and repurposing of content.
This also has the advantage of making content more accessible, and making the web a more inclusive, equal space and not just for people, but for machines as well. Tim Berners-Lee expressed his vision of the Semantic Web in 1999:
“I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A "Semantic Web", which makes this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy, and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The "intelligent agents" people have touted for ages will finally materialize.”
That was more than 20 years ago and it seemed that Berners-Lee's vision has gotten little traction since its inception. But I think recent developments in technology are about to change that.
Headless CMS and Structured Content
One was the widespread adoption of headless CMS technology together with a structured content model. Finally, content is freed from the straitjacket of the page and is organized and marked up according to meaning. The page is no longer the repository for content, it is a method for displaying content on a particular device. Page design / UX and content management are now autonomous and no longer shackled to each other, free to focus on their respective missions and roles in the information system.
Advanced AI Language Models
ChatGPT literally exploded on the scene. Only two months after its launch, the chatbot had 100 million monthly active users. That blows away the growth rate of social media mega-platforms like TikTok and Instagram. The newly released GTP4 is able to read both text and images. According to OpenAI, GPT-4 can “generate the same level of context and understanding as a human volunteer”.
In a NY Times article about GPT4, the Times gave GPT4 a photograph of the inside of a fridge, and GPT4 suggested a few recipes for meals to make from what was in the photo. Generative artificial intelligence (AI) like DALLE 2, Midjourney, Lensa and ChatGPT can create new content, including audio, programming code, images, text, simulations, human-like avatars, videos or even recipes based on a photo of what's in your fridge.
Auto-GPT is an experimental open-source application on GitHub that is showcasing the capabilities of the GPT-4 language model. This program, driven by GPT-4, chains together LLM (large language model) "thoughts", to autonomously achieve whatever goal you set. This means that it can recursively debug, develop, and self-improve. The user can give it a goal and Auto-GPT will act completely independently from there, creating its own prompts and code and taking the actions necessary to accomplish its goal. Safe to say that we are not in Kansas anymore Dorothy!
A Disruptive Combination
The fuel that powers this AI is the massive amount of content on the internet. The Semantic Web gives machines immediate access to a human-like understanding of that content. Structured content is meta-data rich allowing machines to immediately understand how and in what contexts the content can be used for human consumption. That will turbocharge the velocity of the evolution of AI and make it more powerful, accurate and effective as the “intelligent agents” that Berners-Lee envisioned. The combination of AI and the Semantic Web is leading to the development of new technologies, tools, and applications that can process and understand vast amounts of data, making it more accessible and useful to users.
- Better Search Results: By using AI and the Semantic Web, search engines can better understand the intent of a user's query and the meaning of the content searched and return more relevant and trustworthy results.
- Personalization: This applies as well to personalizing the experience of individual users. Understanding the meaning of content to humans provides for recommendations and content that are better tailored to individual interests and preferences.
- Natural Language Processing: AI enables natural language processing (NLP) , which allows users to ask questions and receive answers in plain language, making it easier to find information and complete tasks.
- Improved Data Analytics: AI and the Semantic Web can help organizations analyze large amounts of data from diverse sources more efficiently, and understand the semantic connections providing insights that can better inform decision-making.
- Enhanced User Experience: AI and the Semantic Web can create more engaging and interactive experiences for users, such as chatbots, virtual assistants, and personalized recommendations more relevant to the user.
- A More Connected Web: The Semantic Web can help to connect different parts of the web together in new and innovative ways based on a better understanding of the meaning of content. For example, it can be used to connect relevant information from different websites, or to create new applications that draw on data from multiple sources.
- Accessibility: Natural Language Processing (NLP) enables visually impaired users navigate web pages via voice assistants, and those with hearing impairments can receive text-to-speech translations for videos or audio content. AI-powered image recognition can be used to provide descriptions of images and graphics on websites, which can be extremely helpful for visually impaired users who rely on screen readers. Semantic Web technologies, such as RDFa and schema.org, can be used to provide structured data on websites which can help AI-powered accessibility tools identify and interpret the content on the page for users with disabilities.
The Future Web
The old web was an endless stack of pages with random links. The new web will be a vast collection of ideas linked via a deep understanding of their meaning. This is a model for an expanding collective intelligence. AI + structured content is a new, disruptive paradigm.
Human interactions on the web will look very different from the Google Search, point and click navigation, or even the Siri and Google Assistants that defined the recent state of the art of the web. We could see a quantum leap in productivity as tasks that could have taken weeks or months of research, planning and creation in multiple forms of media, text, audio and visual are reduced to hours. Intelligent conversational interfaces will require new thinking around the UX and UI of websites and apps.
The combination of the new wave of AI and the Semantic Web will completely transform not just the web experience, but how we work and live. The way we search, navigate, interact and transact online is about to change in profound and as yet not totally predictable ways. One thing is certain, it will impact every human endeavor: business, government, social and cultural as the internet today is essential to virtually every commercial and public venture.