Having the fortune to work as CSO for Talis, an innovative UK software company, in one of the most exciting times for software and the internet; I thought I would share some ideas and insights I am finding exciting at the moment.
The wonder I felt when I first came across the mathematics of complexity has never really left me.
It brought me face to face with the reality that even the seemingly simplest thing can be vastly more complex than my mind can comprehend. It goes against intuitive understanding and just leaves me feeling amazed. I’ll try and show you what I mean.
I think a good example is the very well known fractal, the Mandelbrot set.
The equation that generates the Mandelbrot set is almost the simplest equation possible yet leads to an infinity complex pattern. That means a pattern that when you zoom in to some detail just keeps getting more detailed every time you zoom in to take a closer look….forever!!!
Check out the video of zooming in. You might want to turn the sound off though :-)
Here is the Mandelbrot equation:
xn+1 = xn2 + c The Mandelbrot set is generated by iterating this equation for different values of C which is a complex number. C is in the Mandelbrot set if X remains bounded under iteration starting from 0 i.e. X does not go to infinity. The pattern is formed by plotting the results in the complex plane formed by the values of C.
For those without a mathematics background, X & C are a special type of number called a complex number, which has two parts; a real part and an imaginary part.
imaginary numbers are the numbers you get if you multiple any real number by the square root of minus 1. Remember that the square of any real number is always positive even minus numbers, so there is no real number whose square can be -1. That doesn’t stop your mathematician though. They simply defined the symbol i to be the square root of minus and multiple it by a real number. So a complex number has the form x+iy. The imaginary number line is orthogonal to the real number line as they never cross except at zero (cause i*0 is still 0). This then forms what is called the complex plane.
The colours you see in the Mandelbrot set are indications of how quickly non Mandelbrot values shot off to infinity.
Spend a few minus looking at the youtube video of zooming into the Mandelbrot set. Look at the complexity that goes on forever. Now look at that simple little equation.
Where on earth does that pattern and beauty come from. Where is that contained in xn+1 = xn2 + c?
This equations is like a grain of sand in mathematically terms, it doesn’t get much simpler. Yet it is infinity complex as well.
I think this also shows that we really need to appreciate what mathematics and physics has to tell us about complex system. We would love to rely on intuition but it is very hard without an appreciation of complexity theory to see how to embrace complexity rather than trying to stamp it out.
The reality is that the world is full of complex systems. The economy is a complex system. Worse the economy is a complex adaptive system ( a complex system that evolves). We can try and remove the complexity as in the command economy, or we can work with it as in the free market economy.
As technology connects businesses and people every more closely the complexity of any given part of the system is rising rapidly. From the web to manufacturing, business will need to understand how to deal with ecosystems rather than supply chains (i.e. from top down control to emergent behaviour).
For more reading on complexity, economics and business check out the comprehensive The Origin of Wealth and you may find this recent new scientist article interesting as well.
A meteor smashes into the planet (so the thinking goes) and almost overnight the game changes.The dinosaur, as dominant and powerful as it was at the time, simply ceased to be a good fit for its environment. Evolution wasn’t selecting for the biggest , most powerful or most impressive beast, just the best at surviving. When the dinosaur’s environment was suddenly changed, its scale and size must have switched from advantage to disadvantage. Whatever the specific cause, the rules of the game changed and the dinosaur was no longer fit for purpose. So it ceased to be.
I am a believer in the rise of the web of data. In fact I am CTO of Talis which is investing heavily in semantic web technologies. So don’t take this the wrong way but I can’t help but feel the semantic web community is ignoring a vital part of the semantic web jigsaw and this is creating a major credibility problem between it and large parts of the technology community. I am concerned because I think that the semantic web currently lacks two critical things that drove mass adoption of the web.
To be fair the W3C has created a semantic web outreach group and Talis has two representatives on this, so we are doing our bit to help to spread the word :-) but this is only going to really work if the semantic web community really understands what the major missing pieces are for mass adoption. Today, looking at the conversations in the semantic web community, I don’t think the real barrier is being seen clearly.
So here is my personal view on what is going on here.
Many in the semantic web community have been concerned mainly with the rightness of the technology and not the utility of the technology. That is fine for the invention process but badly wrong for the adoption process. Just ask the inventors of the Beta Max :-) . It doesn’t matter how right you are!
Adoption is a strong function of day 0 utility. That means: “What can I do better today by using semantic web technology rather than existing technology?” You can’t use the argument that when everyone has adopted RDF it will be really really useful, because the people who need to adopt the technology in order reach that critical mass of RDF won’t do it because of belief in the semantic web vision. These adopters are pragmatic and need technology to give them advantage today not in 5 years. Network effect based features always have this kind of initiation problem.
To overcome the network effect initiation problem there needs to be day 0 value to drive adoption until the network effect kicks in and takes over as the main reason for adoption. In short there needs to be a killer application of the technology.
What is the semantic web killer application?
So my question to the semantic web community is what exactly can I do far better today with the more unproven semantic web technology than I can today with more established technology such as agreeing simple XML standards?
A clear answer to this question is vital.
I actually think that for most specific instance of usage you could achieve faster adoption and lower risk through de facto standards agreement with a simple XML approach. Take RSS. Was this a success because it was RDF or because is was the de facto emergence of a simple standard based on its raw day 0 utility, not some far off network effect based value. It is not a semantic web killer application.
So it seems to me that semantic web adoption is a very different problem to the web of documents in the early days.
The web had 0 day utility. Many people will remember that feeling of seeing the web for the first time and knowing that you could easily publish any thing you liked and the whole world could read it instantly, mind blowing.
You didn’t need any special tool to write a HTML document, doing it by hand was easy enough.
The web was its own killer application. The semantic web is not.
But the web had a piece missing. You could start at any resource and navigate the links but you couldn’t search the space itself to find a good starting resource in the first place. This meant that as the web grew, more and more of the content could not in practice add any extra value to a users experience.
Of course the missing piece was the search engine. This allowed a user of the web to query the whole space and now every document no matter how obscure could potential enrich a users web experience.
I don’t think it is right to characterise this as something missing from the architecture of the web because search engines could be layered on top and that is better than building in complexity to the core standards, but from a users point of view, the real potential of the web of documents could not be realised until it was possible to query the whole web space.
We talk about the semantic web in terms of a web as database. But where is the database engine? Google is the free text engine for the web of documents. Where is the equivalent for the semantic web?
So the semantic web appears to have little day 0 utility over a specific approach, it is not its own killer application and it lacks the ability to query the semantic web information space itself.
This may appear a provocative conclusion, I don’t know. But is it correct? If it is then who is doing what about it?
If true does this mean the semantic web will forever be a dream?
No I don’t believe that. But I do believe it changes the way we should think about semantic web adoption.
For example, it would be crazy to believe all data must be in RDF, that would create a huge barrier. Instead the question should be how RDF and other data approaches can work together to create a powerful web of data, the superior value of the RDF approach should over time increase the amount of RDF versus other approaches.
But I think the single biggest blocker on web of data adoption and by extension, the semantic web, is the lack of ability to query the whole space. Where is the database engine for the semantic web?
I’m pretty sure that the concepts of co-operation, platforms, webs of data and webs of functions will be central to understanding how the internet and web will continue to change our world and the way technology companies can make defensible long term value. In the next few post I will look at web1.0, web2, the semantic web from the point of view of ecosystems, drawing on the very useful new view of economics known variously as evolutionary or complexity economics. Over on Nodalities you can follow how Talis is putting these ideas to work in the real work of high tech innovation lead business. It is this special combination of theory and practice that makes Talis such an intense and wonderful company to work for.
It is the constant dance between physical and social technology,