What a thrill for me to see and hear Tim Berners-Lee speak last night as part of the Cambridge Forum series. I noticed the event announcement in the Globe Thursday morning, and thinking it might be crowded, I arrived early enough to get a good seat up close. The room probably held 100 people and by the time things got started, all the seats were filled.
The presentation, Technology in the 21st Century, began with a fifteen minute overview providing a foundation for audience questions to follow. His concept was that of a two-part web, made up of documents for reading, and their data which requires further processing. Today's web provides a thin layer over the top of everything, enabling easy access to documents without being concerned about where they actually are, what type of machine they are stored on, or what path will reach them. Tomorrow's web, which he calls the semantic web, will also provide a thin layer, but a layer which allows the data within the document to be readily accessed and processed. For example, if I had found the announcement of this talk on a web page, I would have immediately recognized the speaker's name, confirmed my interest in attending and picked out the pertinent information to get me there - the date and time, the location, and the happy fact that it was free. Lacking a PDA to type it into, I'd write it on my calendar. I'd doublecheck with a map utility to be certain that the address was right where I thought by the Harvard T-stop, or, if I were driving my dream car with the fancy GPS system, I would plug the location into that. From the web I can get all the necessary information, but I have to connect it myself, with my calendar and other systems to process it. The next big step on the semantic web will be when the data itself can be processed, when you can just point a PDA at the web and have it automatically enter the data into your calendar, GPS or whatever. In answer to a later audience question, he foresaw the arrival of 'always-on' access as the key to this change.
He also posed a social issue for audience consideration. Where all of the initial protocols (tcp/ip, ftp, http) were built for the common good, with the web now seen as a money maker, the rush is on to patent devices and even software, an idea he likened to patenting a thought. Standard languages are what allow everything to work as a single web, but tension is growing between intellectual property rights and the desire to keep the web free. His work with the World Wide Web Consortium provides his take on how this should all go, and an audience question about whether computers should be value-free added the answer that they should be like a piece of paper, just an unregulated receptacle for information.
It was so neat to see what a regular nice and funny guy he was, and it was such a stimulating talk that I was kind of surprised that there weren't absolute throngs of people trying to get in. I guess the inventor of the world wide web is just another guy in Cambridge.
If you're interested in more than just my quick notes from the talk you can actually get an audio tape of the whole thing for $12 from www.cambridgeforum.org.