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astronomer Galileo. But the experts agreed, finally,
that the cultural heritage sector needed the Semantic
Web... and that a good deal of education and
guidance would be required to make it appreciate
that need.
The experts numbered 13, lucky for some, at this,
the third DigiCULT Forum of the European Union's
technology watchdog for cultural and scientific
heritage institutions. In the previous 12 months,
other forum groups had discussed authenticity and
integrity for digitisation programmes and, later,
digital asset management systems. Now the
Darmstadt 13 - historians, language and information
technology scientists, academics and publishers - were
looking even further down the information autobahn
to the vision of WWW inventor, Englishman Tim
Berners-Lee, who sees a new kind of automated Web
that learns and understands each user's particular
requirements and delivers complete, reliable, tested
information sets.
In a co-authored May 2001 Scientific American
, Mr Berners-Lee imagines a family facing the
horrors of re-scheduling its lives around a mother's
unexpected illness.The sons and daughters rely on
Semantic Web `agents', small executable Web files,
to search online medical records, hospital bed lists,
transport timetables, doctors' appointment books,
road condition reports and home diaries to find
treatment, plan travel and re-arrange personal
engagements to fit the emergency.
The vision requires huge world-wide investment
in time and effort creating countless `ontologies'
containing, perhaps, XML (eXtensible Mark-up
Language) and RDF (Resource Description
Framework) data to which the electronic `agents'
could refer for understanding before applying to
specially formatted Web pages for the information.
The Berners-Lee et al. dazzling forecast is: `The
Semantic Web will enable machines to comprehend
semantic documents and data, not human speech and
writings... Properly designed, the Semantic Web can
assist the evolution of human knowledge as a whole.'
Dazzling it is and the Darmstadt 13 were attracted.
But they were not blinded. Moderator Dr Seamus
Ross, the Director of Glasgow University's
Humanities Advanced Technology and Information
Institute (HATII), suggested that, while the current
WWW content got a lot of `bang' for its develop-
ment dollars, the Semantic Web needed huge,
expensive content before it could work well.
Application of the Berners-Lee ideas to cultural
heritage use was a long way off, he thought, and
wondered: `Is there enough benefit from the
Semantic Web in the near term to make it a
realisable dream 50 years down the road?'
Italian National Research Council Applied
Ontologies Laboratory director, Nicola Guarino, has
been working on the subject for 12 years and he
knows the difficulties. He said: `This is the ideal view
which Tim Berners-Lee has: machines which work
for you, your proxy which works for you, perform-
ing these dynamic connections for the Web which
preserve meaning. It is pretty ambitious, but this is
his idea. I would be happier if, rather than using an
automatic proxy, we could just let people establish
these dynamic connections using their brain and the
Web.This is already something that is not easily
Austria's Wernher Behrendt had encountered other
snags. At Salzburg Research, the secretariat for the
DigiCULT Forums, he co-ordinates another
European Commission IST project, CULTOS
(Cultural Units of Learning - Tools and Services). He
conceded: `There is a 50-year research vision behind
the issue of the Semantic Web,' and went on, `but
there are incremental steps that, with good utility, can
be built in a reasonable time. One of the intellectual
challenges is to break the vision into these
manageable steps.'
A CULTOS group had, Behrendt explained, taken
one of these incremental steps and built an ontology
for digitised works of art. It had encountered
problems with language representation like: `Are there
tools to support knowledge representation language?
Are the users then actually able to work usefully with
that? Can we incorporate the multimedia authoring
component, where people who have not built the
DigiCULT 15
T. Berners-Lee, J. Hendler, O.
Lassila:The Semantic Web. In:
Scientific American, May 2001,
Ontology n. 1. Philosophy.The
branch of metaphysics that deals
ith the nature of being. 2. Logic.
he set of entities presupposed by
a theory. Collins English Dictio-
ary,Third edition, Glasgow, 1991.