Thursday, October 20, 2005

Semantic webs and interruptions

I liked the interfaces we saw in yesterday's Web lecture. The talk of cascading style sheets (CSS) that split content (the information) from presentation (the mechanism by which we see and manipulate it) put me in mind of where things could go, so I thought I'd get speculative with my last blog.

In terms of content there is the Semantic Web. This seems to be the equivalent to CSS but for content. It's Tim Berners-Lee's idea for the web where information is no longer buried in a lot of HTML documents on web servers around the world but, via yet more protocols and languages, is held in a form that makes sense to machines. It is the ultimate in distributed databases but of meaningful information rather than just data. Today you search for information based on key words either in, or (in the case of Adwords), associated with a site. Well the Semantic Web takes this a bit further by having a descriptive language that summarises the ideas and concepts (the developers call these ontological dictionaries) expressed in the web content. This means that searching for that film clip you saw will get a whole lot easier because you just need to describe it rather than remembering a file name or title.

Back on the interface side, Microsoft are researching ways to make their operating systems more responsive to the way people in the real world want, rather than have, to use their computers. Some possibilities are described in The Life Hackers which looks at the way our increasingly interrupted lifestyle is being studied with the intent to mediate the interruptions. For example one of the researchers went into space to study how to interrupt an astronaut dependent of the real urgency of the message. Then there is the way that highly productive geeks get all that work done when they live in an interruption driven world of email, IM, phones and open plan offices (the solutions seem wonderfully low tech like post-it notes as a stacked to-do list). In a way they are taking a hypermediated lifestyle and trying to make it more transparent by controlling the interruptions for us. I am a bit wary of this, as the article points out, it is a little too HAL-like, part of the experiments is for machines to adapt by observing our behaviours and optimising its mediation of interruptions for us. This is all something the researchers call interruption science.

Put the Semantic Web together with interruption science and it is possible that observation of our behaviour could be used to drive semantic searches from behavioural need to, say, ordering food or collecting information we might need soon. Science fiction, probably, but it is moving into the realm of possibility. Of course putting the bits together is the real trick but it may happen. Personally I find it a bit too creepy but for people brought up with it, it could be as natural as using a mobile phone.


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