Aardvark and the Semantic Web

A meta-web is forming that connects the bits and bytes of our online social actions in new and startling ways.

“It’s overwhelming, fantastic, and like all technological marvels,” says Damon Horowitz, “just a little bit amusing.”

Just a week ago Google bought Horowitz’s social search start-up Aardvark for a reported $50 million. The price is one the company co-founder will neither confirm nor deny. What he will allude to though is that now that they’re under the Google umbrella, Aardvark-style “social search” will attempt to integrate across the company’s ever expanding offerings.

If you’re familiar with Aardvark let your imagination run for a moment and consider how the platform can turbo-boost Google Buzz which was also, and perhaps serendipitously, released last week.

If you’re not familiar with Aardvark — and since it only launched a public beta last October, there’s no reason you should be — a basic primer runs something like this.

Aarvark is a free service that lets those of us puzzled about life’s quandaries ask our social network for answers to our questions. These range from the mundane, “Anyone have a tailor they trust to alter suits near the 1 line in Manhattan?,” to the possibly profound, “How would you figure out how many cats there are in the US that are named Gary?”

More often than not, a response comes within a few minutes.

“We think of Aardvark like a contact who should be available everywhere, through your existing communication channels,” says Horowitz.

Limits of AI

Damon Horowitz explains Artificial Intelligence’s inherent limits and how humans and machines can play nice together — TEDx SoMa 2010.

Questions can be asked through Vark.com, mobile apps, email or instant messenger and the beauty of it all is that responses are contextual. Answers are, after all, coming from people within your social graph. The benefit of social search is the human touch, real responses from real people.

“Aardvark is great when you want to get an answer from a person right away, and you don’t want to try to hunt through a bunch of web pages yourself,” Horowitz explains. “Often we don’t want static information from the web, but a personal answer to our specific question — we want someone to hear our question, understand our context, and share their relevant experience.”

By connecting into existing social circles such as those we have via Facebook and Twitter, Aardvark scans our social graph for those who have similar backgrounds, sensibilities and interests. Send Aardvark a question and the service surveys our first circle of connections and then friends of friends.

Like Twitter, Aardvark should be thought of as a utility rather than a Web application or destination site. Whether it’s Aardvark that succeeds or another company like it, giving people the ability to leverage their social graph to intelligently ask and answer questions across any connected device will increasingly become part of the Internet’s plumbing.

Aardvark’s leveraging of the vast amounts of social, geographic and overall data sloshing through the Web and reconstructing it into a useful utility demonstrates an overall shift in the Internet’s evolution. There’s even a name being promoted to describe the trend. It’s called the Synaptic Web.

“The Synaptic Web is a set of observations about how the Web is forming,” says Khris Loux, CEO of Echo and proponent of the concept. “As the speed, flexibility and complexity of connections on the Web increase exponentially, the Internet is increasingly beginning to resemble a biological analog; the human brain.”

The metaphor here is that all our information and actions are pings firing across the Internet much like synapses firing in a brain. A single ping doesn’t do much in an of itself but multiply to scale with the billions and billions of social actions people are committing online and you have the beginnings of a pulsating, thinking ecosystem.

Microsoft’s Photosynth is a Synaptic Web example, says Loux. By taking the discrete photos taken by the crowd, combining them with geographic data and mixing them through — and analyzing them with — very smart code, whole new images and ways to explore spaces are created.

“Photosynth,” Loux explains, “is clear proof that patterns exist and meaning can be discerned without the need for active coordination between users.”

What he’s talking about is a meta-web, a place that isn’t so much sites and HTML pages but instead human connections augmented by the machine.

Horowitz has worked on these problems for a while now. His background is in Artificial Intelligence and philosophy. What he concluded though is that trying to get the machine to think and act like a human is a bit of a fool’s errand. Instead, we should be harnessing the machine to increase connections between people and leverage human intelligence.

“Machines do well at processing large quantities of information — they are great at fast indexing, numerical analysis, pattern recognition and such,” says Horowitz. “Humans deal well with context — they are naturally adept at understanding other humans, at sharing subjective experiences, thinking through ideas, and helping each other out.

When the Web was born some twenty years ago, it was a publishing mechanism. If you learned some HTML you could put up a page and broadcast your thoughts. Everyone became a publisher.

When the Web was reborn as Web 2.0, everyone became a commentator. The read/write Web has been a participatory experience. You write, I comment. You post, we share.

Facebook built an empire on this read/write model and while it and Twitter are now part of social media vernacular, Aardvark — despite its aquisition by Google — is still under the radar.

This is a shame. Where else can you get answers to life’s questions in under five minutes, a claim Aardvark legitimately makes.

“I know this ‘we sit on top of all your other social information online’ approach isn’t yet a fully established paradigm,” Horowitz says, “but I think everything is moving that way.”

The change is tectonic and while tectonic change comes imperceptibly at first, Internet time moves quite fast. Five years ago seems ancient in the Web world, just as five years from now 2010 will appear quite quaint.

Aardvark and the Semantic Web originally appeared on ScribeMedia.

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