Sunday, November 12, 2006

AI and "Web 3.0"

When I saw John Markoff's article, "Entrepreneurs See a Web Guided by Common Sense", on the front page of the NYT today, I did not know whether to feel excited or dismayed.

On the one hand, the distant goals of many working on information retrieval were nicely laid out in the article:
Computer scientists and a growing collection of start-up companies are finding new ways to mine human intelligence. Their goal is to add a layer of meaning on top of the existing Web that would make it less of a catalog and more of a guide -- and even provide the foundation for systems that can reason in a human fashion.

In the future, more powerful systems could act as personal advisers in areas as diverse as financial planning, with an intelligent system mapping out a retirement plan for a couple, for instance, or educational consulting, with the Web helping a high school student identify the right college.

The Holy Grail ... is to build a system that can give a reasonable and complete response to a simple question like: "I'm looking for a warm place to vacation and I have a budget of $3,000. Oh, and I have an 11-year-old child."
But then, the article discredits this vision by attaching it to the buzzword "Web 3.0". Readers easily could ignore the caveats in the article, see the absurd claims that Flickr and Digg represent substantial progress in AI, and then come away with the impression that intelligent web applications are less than decades away.

Overpromising and underdelivering caused much disenchantment with artificial intelligence in the 1970's and 1980's. It would be a shame to see it happen again.

While I subscribe to the vision and goals laid out, I want to emphasize the words of the skeptics. From the article:
Artificial intelligence, with machines doing the thinking instead of simply following commands, has eluded researchers for more than half a century.

Referred to as Web 3.0, the effort is in its infancy, and the very idea has given rise to skeptics who have called it an unobtainable vision.

Researchers and entrepreneurs say that while it is unlikely that there will be complete artificial-intelligence systems any time soon, if ever.
It is true that we are building more intelligent Web applications. Some of these systems do simple learning and adaptation using the behavior of their users. For example,'s website adapts to the interests of each shopper and improves the more it is used.

But it is a long way from this to the Holy Grail. These early applications work from detecting patterns in data. They have no understanding of language. They cannot reason about user goals. They have no base of knowledge that would allow them to make common sense connections.

There is no way in which these early systems can take a goal like "Plan for me a warm vacation appropriate for my 11 year old" and reason about it like a travel agent would. Building that application, while a noble and worthy challenge, is at least decades off.

AI researchers, do not overpromise and underdeliver again. Cut out the "Web 3.0" hype. Let's be realistic. Even without the chimerical Holy Grail of AI, we can help people find and discover what they need.


Anonymous said...

My computer is a more naive consumer than I am, so how far off is the tidal wave of RDF spam if this goes ahead? Seems pretty premature.

Anonymous said...

You are right. Let's stop the hype cycle. And please, not that one AGAIN. AI got its share of ups and downs. Let it rest in peace for a while.

Ian Parker said...

There is some doubt in my mind as to how the Semantic Web will be constructed. Will it be constructed by spiders, or will it be constructed by people entering their own tags.

To me spider construction is the only way to ensure consistent quality. However -

"En primavera mi barco attravesta las cerradurras de Grand Union..."

Bearing this in mind spiders will need to improve their semantic grasp. SW terms will need have defined position in the vector space of LSA.

Anonymous said...

AI Minds will soon be flitting about the 'Net, taking up residence in receptive robots or self-multiplying in the Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest. The Singularity is near.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. The first sentence of this entry "When I was John Markoff's article..." would seem to imply that your blog has some pretty interesting AI capabilities.

Greg Linden said...

Heh, thanks, Anonymous. "was" should have been "saw". Oops! It is fixed now.

Anonymous said...

It's partly just the terminology. People hear AI and they think, ooooh, they're building robots to take over the world. Don't call it AI. Call it statistical causal discovery. Half the problem will be solved right there.