TED2009: Tim Berners-Lee


Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web is on stage at TED2009. (I've written articles twice about Tim Berners-Lee for MIT technology Review, in 2001 about the Semantic Web, and again in 2004, shortly after he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and awarded Finland's million-euro Millennium Technology Prize.)

He bounded on stage with the energy of a teenager. "Almost 20 years ago I wanted to reframe the way we use information. I want to ask for your help in a new reframing."

About the creation of the Web: His boss at CERN gave him time for a "play project" — that's where he developed http, URLs, the pieces of the World Wide Web. Why did he so it? "Basically frustration" — whenever he want to share documents between research institutions, he had to learn new programs, reconnect to different machines, too much incompatibility. Hard to access documents.

But when he described the Web to people without showing it to them, they weren't impressed. Difficult to explain what it is. You have to get it before you get it.

Today, he has the same problem. People have a hard time understanding his new project, the Semantic Web. The Web was about putting your documents on Web. The Semantic Web is about putting your data on web.

From my Tech Review article about TBL:

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW: For several years, you've been promoting something you call the Semantic Web, but people don't seem too excited. Why not?

TIM BERNERS-LEE: It's not the first time I've had this paradigm-shift problem. Early on, people really didn't understand why the Web was interesting. They saw it in the smaller scale, and it's not interesting in the smaller scale. Same thing with the Semantic Web.

TR: How do you get past that?

B-L: Right now we are just starting by putting applications onto the Semantic Web one by one and linking them up where it seems useful. But what's exciting is the network effect. The vision is that we will get to a critical mass, where everything starts getting linked into an unimaginably large whole. Then, the incentive to add more to it rises exponentially as the value of what is out there also does.

Because few people initially get this great "aha!" of connecting to a huge mass of Semantic Web data, it all has to be done by people who are convinced — who understand that it's worth putting the effort into getting the thing off the ground.

The technology is "linked data." (Linked Data is a catchier term than Semantic Web. But is Linked Data part of the Semantic Web or the new name for the Semantic Web?) The cool thing about Linked Data is the relationships. He wrote an article called Linked Data a couple of years ago.

Why is linked data important? Curing cancer, understanding economy, global warming. A lot of the state of the knowledge of human race is stored in databases that are not shared — stored in "silos." Now they are linking the data, bridging across different disciplines. "When you connect data together you get this huge power out of it."