Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Do not ask me to be a keynote speaker on ontologies and inference engines

In the last two weeks, I have been offered various opportunities as an expert on ontologies or inference engines. Short of being one of the organizers for the last two Canadian Semantic Web conferences, I am not an expert on ontologies or inference engines. Please stop. There are plenty of very qualified people in this area. I am not one of them.

I will repeat here what I tell anyone who comes up with such an invitation. Before I become interested in anything that has to do with web ontologies, I need to be convinced that, at least, RDF is a useful idea. So, first take Tim Bray’s RDF challenge:

To the first person or organization that presents me with an RDF-based app that I actually want to use on a regular basis (at least once per day), and which has the potential to spread virally, I hereby promise to sign over the domain name RDF.net.

But see, the rdf.net domain name is still down. Tim Bray, who can be seen as one of the initiators and early promoters of RDF, is still waiting for a useful RDF application. So am I.

I am sorry, but if the expert system debacle taught us anything, it is that, in Computer Science, it is not enough for an idea to sound intuitively useful. Ideas must be put to the test and they must provide value to users. Otherwise, users do not want to be bothered with it. In this sense, Information Technology is an experimental science. Some ideas are useful, others are not. So far, RDF and ontologies have not been shown to be useful. The burden of the proof is not on the users or on those who do not believe. The burden of the proof lies squarely on those promoting the idea. I do not have to argue against ontologies or RDF: if you disagree with me, you have to prove me wrong. That is how Information Technology works: you convince people by changing their life for the best. The reason for this is simple: there are too many good looking ideas out there for us to consider them all, and so we prune them out by whether or not they are proving useful in practice.

Disclaimer: yes, I teach my students all about RDF, even covering the most important applications, in my INF6450 course. Yes, you can teach something and yet be very critical of it. In a university setting, it is not a contradiction.