Artificial intelligence guru Danny Hillis has launched an early version of the first major Web 3.0 application. It’s called Freebase, and its grandiose epistemological mission is right up there with those of Google and Wikipedia.”We’re trying,” Hillis tells John Markoff of the New York Times, “to create the world’s database, with all of the world’s information.” Alpha user Tim O’Reilly says that Freebase “appears to be a bastard child of wikipedia and the Open Directory Project” but that it’s really “like a system for building the synapses for the global brain.”
The product of Hillis’s latest company, Metaweb Technologies, Freebase is a user-generated brain. Like Wikipedia, it allows people to freely add information to it, in the form of text or images or, one assumes, anything else that can be rendered digitally. But it also allows users to add “metadata” about the information – tags that describe what a word or picture is and how it relates to other information. Freebase, says O’Reilly, “turns its users loose on not just adding more data items but making connections between them by filling out meta tags that categorize or otherwise connect the data items, using a typology that can be extended by users, wiki-style.”
The addition of rich meta tags in a standardized form is what makes Freebase a next-generation Web application – a manifestation of what Tim Berners-Lee long ago dubbed the Semantic Web and what has recently been rebranded Web 3.0 for popular consumption.
Although the wikipediaesque user-generated quality of Freebase will get much attention, Freebase is really more about the creation of a community of machines than a community of people. The essence of the Semantic Web is the development of a language through which computers can share meaning and hence operate at a higher, more human level of intelligence. The meta tags are crucial to that machine language. Freebase hopes to harness the (free) labor of a big pool of vounteers to add those tags, which is a labor-intensive chore (and a big hurdle on the path to Web 3.0).
Should Freebase pan out – and right now it’s largely a theoretical construct – it would have many practical (and money-making) applications. It would provide the basis for a more natural form of searching, allowing programmers, as Markoff says, “to write programs allowing Internet users to pose queries that might produce a simple, useful answer rather than a long list of documents.” It would also enable various information-processing devices that used to have to be configured manually (by people) to be able to program themselves automatically. A rudimentary example is “the video recorder of the future,” which “might stop blinking and program itself without confounding its owner.”
But Hillis has bigger fish to fry than self-programming gadgets. In the past, he’s expressed a desire to create machines that transcend what he sees as the limitations of human beings. “I guess I’m not overly perturbed by the prospect that there might be something better than us that might replace us,” he once said. “We’ve got a lot of bugs, sorts of bugs left over history back from when we were animals.” Freebase is an attempt at creating an artificial intelligence that can be bootstrapped by the contributions of humans. On one level, it works for us. On a deeper level, we work for it. As Hillis has also said, Web 3.0 is a “spooky thing.”
Of course, relying on a rag-tag band of volunteers, all afflicted with those nasty evolutionary bugs, brings its own problems, particularly in an effort that, unlike Wikipedia, requires a great deal of consistency and precision in terminology. Freebase’s ability to attract and manage a human horde will be critical to its success. Will we be up for the job?