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ACM Queue is proving itself again as a source of worthwhile information on the current state and trends in computer science and IT. This time, it has an interview with Tim Bray, the inventor of XML and RDF.
I find that I share many of Bray’s views, especially his pessimism about the so-called Semantic Web. Having read AI and computational linguistics in the course of my studies, I concur with Bray when he says, “You know, K[nowledge] R[epresentation] didn’t suddenly become easy just because it’s got pointy brackets.” He also mentions Doug Lenat, founder of the Cyc project, which produced one of the largest and most complete knowledge bases and has been going on for more than 15 years. There is an open off-shot called OpenCyc which contains part of the software and of the knowledge base. Cyc is an admirable project, but its applications are scarce, despite the enormous amount of energy that has been spent on it. It’s unlikely that knowledge representation in XML will change that – KR touches on many very deep and thorny problems in machine reasoning, inference, logics, and computational linguistics.
Bray also mentions the applications of XML and its relationship to older information exchange formats like ASN.1, and declares that the key point of XML is that it doesn’t describe the format of the data, but its meaning.
Personally, I am happy about the widespread adoption of XML – writing parsers is extremely hairy, and defining a document format in a non-ambiguous manner is doubly so. An open interchange format can give a boost to the development of applications, since the tedious tasks of serialization and transport can be delegated to the XML library. On the other hand, I do think that XML is excessively noisy for some applications, and that more efficient interchange formats exist, for example for purely numerical data.