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World-wide computer.

It has always been the goal of humankind that machines should help people, but when it comes to the World-Wide Web, that help is often to provide a dumbwaiter service, shoveling information onto the computer screen faster and faster, allowing the person using the computer to do the actual intellectual work more efficiently. Attempts to use computers to independently solve problems have been limited to specific applications.

However, just as hypertext for human communication was of limited impact when restricted to a local area, so machine manipulation of knowledge may blossom when it takes place on a global scale in a manner similar to the use of hypertext concepts in the Web.

Today, the principal use of machines that read Web data is for search engines. These are notorious in their ineffectiveness - this is not due to any fault in their design, but because they must operate in a world designed almost exclusively for human consumption. A Web indexer has to read a page of hypertext and try to deduce the sorts of questions for which the page might provide an answer.

Consider instead a Web in which, for example, the records of ownership of land, offers for sale, ownership of groups, endorsement of documents and individuals by bodies, and expressions of who owns what, who belongs to which groups, are all available in machine-readable form. This means that these documents are statements made in a computer language rather than a natural language, and that the statements, or assertions, are made in terms of things defined either in similar assertions or (as the system must be tied to reality in some way) by a human-readable definition of basic objects and operations.

For example, it may be interesting to record that a person is a member of a company. The company may be defined by a statement in a registry of companies, employees may be defined by pointers to their Web pages, and the relationship of membership may be defined both in terms of its significance to people, and (for the computer) in terms of its logical properties and implications. The term assertion is appropriate, since it emphasizes that some party is asserting something: in general, it will be necessary always to be aware of who said what, if the results are to be trusted at all. Already we see the need in some Web pages to include incidental information (e.g., size, title, author, price) about referenced Web pages. But this information can be incorrect, so the system must distinguish between definitive and reported information.

When assessing the benefits of this evolution of the Web, we can only start to imagine the results. It is likely that the power of systems built in an environment such as that outlined in the previous paragraphs will exceed anything we can imagine our current technological context. However, we can see broad areas in which benefits will immediately occur.

Machine Analysis

An exciting possibility is to first make the interface to the Web so intuitive and easy that people will be inclined to use it to record the vast majority of their thoughts and steps throughout their work. If we suppose this is done in a semantically rich way, then we subsequently allow Web-analyzing programs to run over it and report to us information about how we are working and organizing ourselves. Imagine, for example, an application that performs a statistical scan over the sorts of structures that exist in a number of companies, and then correlating the results with companies' performances. Imagine machines that conclude how teams should work by watching them try and fail (or succeed). Imagine programs helping us write rules for our own use that will make teams, towns, and democracies work.

Machine Commerce

Once commercial markets are online in a machine-accessible way, there are great opportunities for software agents to trade on behalf of their users. Like automated stock trading, this can change the dynamics of market systems dramatically. In principle, it may allow market prices to be finely tuned and more stable.

World-Wide Brain

Many visions of humanity working in groups suggest the analogy that people within the Web are organized like neurons in a brain. They ask the question as to whether, when connected together appropriately (with the right rules of interconnection) the human race, with the entirety of its computers, will in fact be capable of significantly greater things than today. As Marvin Minsky looks at the mind as society, we should also consider viewing society as a mind. This possibility has not been lost on those such as Douglas Hofstadter, and was hinted at by Douglas Engelbart's Augmented Intelligence. Certainly, networked society will act as a whole, as an organism. There will be parameters of measurement of restlessness and stability analogous to hormone levels or body temperature of the human organism. But the analogy is of limited use, as we cannot tell what will come of the great connected system. Perhaps the possibility of global intuition will solve or find new problems posed by members.

But the effect of working together that some envisage is greater than that. If the whole were really to behave like an organism, then it would be beyond the wit of any individual to comprehend the state or operation of the whole. The organism as a whole would develop its own goals and ways of achieving them. This would not be anything our ideas of goals and sense of what is right and wrong could cope with, since these concepts are largely based on freedom and justice for individuals.

In physics, we try to find laws of local (individual, microscopic) behavior that will, extrapolated statistically to the macroscopic, predict the behavior of the world as we see it. In our legal systems, we try to define laws of individual behavior such that not only individuals but society as a whole will behave in the ways we hope. The same process will happen as we create an information universe populated with computing engines, but everywhere intimately linked with our "real" world. We may have the power to accomplish things on a much greater scale than ever before: but will we even know well enough what we want, let alone have the scientific ability to devise the recipe for bringing it about?

The vision of the World-Wide Web as a global computing platform is one aspect driving the evolution of the Web, perhaps the aspect most appropriate for a 50th anniversary look ahead. For more detailed information on some of the efforts under way toward achieving this vision, as well as descriptions of shorter-term goals, I encourage you to visit the World-Wide Web Consortium Web site at

TIM BERNERS-LEE ( is the director of the World-Wide Web Consortium and a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science.
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Title Annotation:The Next 50 Years: Our Hopes, Our Visions, Our Plans
Author:Berners-Lee, Tim
Publication:Communications of the ACM
Date:Feb 1, 1997
Previous Article:The frontier between us.
Next Article:Between hope and fear.

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