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Book Review: Thinking on the Web: Berners-Lee, Godel and Turing by H. Peter Alesso and Craig F. Smith (Author)

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Is the web as good as it can be? Have we created a monstrous database that is beyond organization? Will search efforts continue to deliver irrelevant results?

I thought so until I read Thinking On The Web, by H. Peter Alesso and Craig F. Smith. Combining a history of web development to the present, and an insightful glimpse into what developers are currently working on to make the web better, Thinking on the Web brings together the technological contributions of Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing and Tim Berners-Lee.

These three men, born in 1906, 1912, and 1955, respectively, shaped the primary technology we use today. Few would argue the heart of the technological revolution is the internet. The development of what we today take for granted, we owe largely to Tim Berners-Lee, and the works of Godel and Turing, 40 years earlier.

Authors Alesso and Smith cite the ground-breaking changes brought about by the Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution. "Each produced over a 100-fold factor of improvement in the access to basic human resources and subsequently freed individuals to pursue higher-level cultural and social goals."

Kurt Godel used logic to prove there are mathematical problems that can not be solved and, in fact, propositions that are presumably true but which cannot be either proved or disproved and are therefore undecidable. This finding, say Alesso and Smith, "is of particular importance in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer science in terms of defining the boundaries for automated system problem solving." Thinking on the Web explores the consequences of this discovery as it relates to the worldwide web.

What we have today is not perfect, as witnessed by all of our search engine results that are irrelevant to the query. So is it possible that the technological inventions of our day may represent a third revolutionary change – the Information Revolution? Could we move toward an intelligent semantic web?

The next level of productivity, if the Internet will indeed lead to the Information Revolution, is artificial intelligence (AI). Could software develop the ability to learn, to assimilate information, organize data and apply knowledge to solve problems?

AI came from Turing's work in World War II when he, as a cryptology expert, worked to break German codes. Later he developed his ideas of Intelligent Machinery, which Turing defined as what was meant by thinking and intelligence. We now know this under the term Artificial Intelligence.

While some chapters will be beyond our grasp as a lay audience, Thinking on the Web is enlightening for those who want a better grasp of the intellectual wrestling that formed the impetus for the development of computers and our current revolution in technology.

To keep readers grounded, each chapter is preceded by what the authors call an "interlude," a conversational device to walk us through thinking about what a semantic web means and how it would play out in critical thinking applications.

To date, the web has largely grown to handle communication and commerce but further growth is stunted in significant ways. The most explosive developments we've seen in recent years are the portals to nonsense and social networking sites. What is the next probable step? The Semantic Web.

The book states we need to achieve at least two key advances in order to achieve the full potential of the web as it relates to human productivity:

1. Ubiquitous access to transaction applications of all types, and
2. Intelligent software applications enabling automated transactions.

The "Semantic Web," a new architecture, can provide users the ability to work on shared knowledge, using meaningful representations. The Semantic Web could utilize metadata, ontologies, and logic to carry out tasks, collecting and organizing information while communicating with other web resources as needed.

An ontology (which defines the relations among terms) that expresses rules for manipulating information can lead to the full power of the Semantic Web when programs "can collect web content from diverse sources, automatically access the info and communicate the results in an appropriate form," according to Alesso and Smith.

Tim Berners-Lee is familiar to our generation for his contributions to today's technology, which include:

  • WWW – World Wide Web, the graphical browser
  • HTML –  Hypertext Markup Language, "unleashing of commercialization on the internet"
  • URL –    Uniform Resource Locator, which combines www and html, and
  • HTTP –  Hypertext Transmission Protocol, although development of hypertext was first credited to Vannevar Bush, another computer pioneer.

Overall, Thinking on the Web offers a fascinating history and impressive background of the age we are living through, and serves as a tribute to three great minds. A true geek bonus is the depth of coverage, with rich explanations, examples, and a look at next generation web services.

Other highlights:

Chapter 10 covers forward thinking application for Semantic Web, such as better search,
e-learning, life sciences and drug discoveries, where Semantic Web applications could unlock the many databases and information systems in global use.

Chapter 12 covers the broad concept of search. This chapter provides great training for people who don't understand or appreciate the complexity of search, and should be required reading for anyone working in technology today.

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About Helen Gallagher