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By JOHN MARKOFF
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 11 — From the billions of documents that form the World Wide Web and the links that weave them together, computer scientists and a growing collection of start-up companies are finding new ways to mine human intelligence.
Their goal is to add a layer of meaning on top of the existing Web that would make it less of a catalog and more of a guide — and even provide the foundation for systems that can reason in a human fashion. That level of artificial intelligence, with machines doing the thinking instead of simply following commands, has eluded researchers for more than half a century.
[...] the Holy Grail for developers of the semantic Web is to build a system that can give a reasonable and complete response to a simple question like: “I’m looking for a warm place to vacation and I have a budget of $3,000. Oh, and I have an 11-year-old child.”
Under today’s system, such a query can lead to hours of sifting — through lists of flights, hotel, car rentals — and the options are often at odds with one another. Under Web 3.0, the same search would ideally call up a complete vacation package that was planned as meticulously as if it had been assembled by a human travel agent.
How such systems will be built, and how soon they will begin providing meaningful answers, is now a matter of vigorous debate both among academic researchers and commercial technologists. Some are focused on creating a vast new structure to supplant the existing Web; others are developing pragmatic tools that extract meaning from the existing Web.
Intelligence agencies also helped underwrite the work of Doug Lenat, a computer scientist whose company, Cycorp of Austin, Tex., sells systems and services to the government and large corporations. For the last quarter-century Mr. Lenat has labored on an artificial-intelligence system named Cyc that he claimed would some day be able to answer questions posed in spoken or written language — and to reason.
Cyc was originally built by entering millions of common-sense facts that the computer system would “learn.” But in a lecture given at Google earlier this year, Mr. Lenat said, Cyc is now learning by mining the World Wide Web — a process that is part of how Web 3.0 is being built.
During his talk, he implied that Cyc is now capable of answering a sophisticated natural-language query like: “Which American city would be most vulnerable to an anthrax attack during summer?”