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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Semantic Web Technology

Yuko Fukushima

Oct. 21, 2016

Researchers from around the world gathered at a conference in Japan last week to discuss and demonstrate the latest developments in semantic web technology. The field of learning supports the advancement of artificial intelligence, and could revolutionize lifestyles.

The word "semantics" comes from the Greek word "semantikos", which means "the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning". Semantics in the world of IT means tagging every word and data on the internet with information that will make it easier to find relevant information.

Research in the area began in the late 20th century and it is now being put into practical use. The International Semantic Web Conference brought some of the brightest minds in the field to Kobe, western Japan. Participants reflected on where semantic web technology currently stands, and where it intends to go.

About 500 people attended from 42 countries. They spoke about various sectors - including medical services, entertainment and agriculture - in which the application of semantic technology is being considered, or is already under development.

One demonstration allowed users to remotely access a robot located in France, and watch it move in real time on video. If the technology was applied in a museum, it would allow remote visitors to see exhibitions as if they were actually there, and obtain additional information on the exhibits. The developer behind the technology aims to put it into practical use in schools and hospitals.

At a separate booth, conference participants tried out a sensor bracelet that collects data on users’ activities and environment. The information is used to automatically carry out routine tasks, from turning on lights in the home or office to opening doors.

A smart phone app also helped attendees find their way from the Kobe International Conference Center to local tourist attractions. Designed for foreign visitors, the app developers have selected and registered recommended tourist attractions in three categories: restaurants, karaoke bars and sightseeing spots. Data like average stay time and location are also tagged, and users can select a destination based on the amount of time they have to travel, and dedicate to the chosen activity.

The app allows users to access a range of attractions and experiences they may not have otherwise considered. It is also handy at a restaurant where the menu is in Japanese only. Users can take a photograph of the menu and the app will translate the characters. Using semantic technology, it also finds and displays information about the ingredients and recipes related to the menu items.

The app shows how semantic web technology efficiently provides information that users want. It is achieved by attaching tags to individual data that allow computers to understand information online.

Web giants Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are working on a project to add tags to each piece of information online and make it accessible over the Internet. And a growing number of companies are looking for ways to apply semantic technology to their businesses.

“There is a move to use semantic technology to link public and in-house data, to analyze it organically, add new value and generate profit,” says Makoto Iwayama, senior researcher at Hitachi.

As semantic technology is being put into practical use, academics and researchers at the Kobe conference made presentations about developments that have wide-reaching applications. Expectations are high that semantic technology will accelerate the development of what is termed the Internet of Things (IoT). Leading home electric appliance makers like Whirlpool and Siemens are already testing the application of semantic technology to their IoT ecosystem.

Conference chair Yolanda Gil from the University of Southern California is optimistic about the way forward: “We’re no longer in our office thinking of possible futures but we’re actually living the future. It’s a very exciting time for artificial intelligence and for in particular for this web-centered intelligence and web-centered semantic information,” she says.


Newsroom Tokyo business anchor Yuko Fukushima joined presenters Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in a studio discussion.

Beppu: What are some of the challenges facing the developers before this technology can be put into practical use?

Fukushima: The researchers need to work with manufacturers so the technology can be applied to the IoT, robots and put into commercial use. The problem is cost. To merge the IoT with semantic web technology, products need to be equipped with high-spec CPUs. Then it depends on whether consumers view the product as necessary, or worth the price. As an example, a few years ago a home appliance manufacturer produced an air conditioner with Bluetooth capability. Users were able to control the appliance remotely using their smartphones. But it cost a lot more than a regular air conditioner and consumers saw no need for the function, nor the additional cost. Adding Bluetooth capability to an air conditioner required fairly low-spec CPUs, but still, people thought it was expensive.

Shibuya: If all goes well with the advances in semantic web technology, what kind of future can we envision?

Fukushima: One AI researcher at the conference said that 20 years from now, people will be working differently because many routine tasks will be done by computers. As an example, he said one of the tasks of an accountant is to check the books of their clients and to look for mistakes. The job requires a sharp eye and expertise. But if semantic web technology is used, anyone will be able to check ledgers easily with the help of the right computer application. The researcher said the important thing is for people to learn how to use computers to support their work while keeping a focus on what computers cannot do: come up with innovative ideas.