Spivack Gets the Semantic Web, But the Analogy Eludes

Nova SpivackI simultaneously envy and fret over Nova Spivack’s style. I’m deeply sympathetic to his recent brain metaphor—in no small part because I’m a sucker for the killer analogy. Spivack’s analogy is catchy and seems useful: “I believe that collective intelligence primarily comes from connections—this is certainly the case in the brain where the number of connections between neurons far outnumbers the number of neurons; certainly there is more ‘intelligence’ encoded in the brain’s connections than in the neurons alone.” Then, bringing it home, “Connection technology…is analogous to upgrading the dendrites in the human brain; it could be a catalyst for new levels of computation and intelligence to emerge.” Ultimately, Spivack claims, “By enriching the connections within the Web, the entire Web may become smarter.”

There’s great stuff packed in here—frustratingly great stuff. Is there really more “intelligence” encoded in the brain’s connections than its neurons? What does it mean to believe that collective intelligence comes from connections? Or are we talking tautology (in which “intelligence” + “connections” = “connected” or “collected” or “collective intelligence”)? And what could it ever mean to upgrade, or enrich, our dendrites, the byzantine tree-like conductors of electrical inputs to our neurons? How would we be more intelligent?

Why not rehearse an argument that defends the aptness of this analogy? Why leave that chore—the really hard part—to me, to the reader? Unless they’re trivial or obvious, rigorous analogies alone cannot be more than invitations to real arguments. Don’t invite me to the party and tell me to bring the champagne!

“The important point for this article,” Spivack writes, “is that in this data model rather than there being just a single type of connection”—the present Web’s A-to-B hotlink—”the Semantic Web enables an infinite range of arbitrarily defined connections to be used.” Bits of information, people, and applications “can now be linked with specific kinds of links that have very particular and unambiguous meaning and logical implications. … Connections can carry more meaning, on their own. It’s a new place to put meaning in fact—you can put meaning between things to express their relationships.”

Yes, when connections can carry arbitrarily more meaning, the human-relevant reasons for them to exist grow arbitrarily large—or, at least, as arbitrarily large as we bandwidth-bounded humans can handle. Only this kind of virtuous semantic circle, it seems to me, can radically improve the intelligence of the web as whole. What’s important are not just connections with more meaning (“upgraded” dendrites, I suppose). What’s important is that connections with more meaning promise a blossoming of the total number of connections (more “dendrites”)—each of which can themselves have more meaning.

The web will become more intelligent, or just more useful, when projects like Spivack’s and like Freebase—which I’ve checked out a bit (facebook me for an invitation to the private alpha)—expand the scope of reasons for connections among bits of information, people, and applications. Of course, that’s the whole idea for the semantic web. With more reasons for connections, we get more meaning for connections. With more meaning for connections, we get more connections. In the end, we get more connections with more meaning—a kind of semantic multiplier effect.

It’s just that we’re talking about Internet here. Brains are still a few years out.

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