Though science fiction has molded many of our expectations of what technology can do for us, many of the visions of the 'future' (which is now the present, or even the past), have turned out disappointing. "Where are my flying cars?" was a common lament heard around the turn of the century. "How about the hyperspace drive? The colonization of far-off planets? And the smart talking computers?"
Everyone I know is still driving cars on the ground on this planet; but what about those talking computers? Our computers do talk, a bit. We can talk to machines on the phone to navigate through menus. We have voice-activated appliances. But these things are seen as novelties, not really something that has changed our lives.
But our lives have changed since the days of Star Trek, and dramatically. Mouse-and-window interfaces provide us with a way to express what we want to do far more easily (both for person and machine) than the voice interface that Deckard uses in Blade Runner). And the most transformational revolution of all came in the form of the internet itself; suddenly, we have a whole new way of thinking about sharing information with one another. Anything that anyone thinks you might want to know can be found on the web, from recipes for apple pie to directions to my house.
How does this compare with the capabilities we came to expect from Star Trek? The famous talking computer had access to "all of Star Fleet's records", and could answer any question. But it could go well beyond that. It could perform analyses, draw conclusions, and participate as an independent team member in investigations. This is a typical vision of computers of the future; they get to be so smart, that they can do the work of humans, but do it more quickly, more logically, but (since sci-fi is always human-centric) with less touch.
For the most part, science fiction missed the real innovation in computing of the past decade - that advent of the internet, and the web in particular. The actual revolution that did happen was a revolution not of computing, not of having computers solve more problems for people, but of communication. The web allows anyone to say whatever they want, and anyone else to find it.
The only futurist work I know of that got this right was the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World (and since this was 1991, he wasn't looking as far into the future as Star Trek, Blade Runner or Alien). In the background of this "futuristic" world of 1999, there was a technology of communication. An animated critter searched through various records to find information for the main characters. Wenders even anticipated the cuteness of Google, having his search engine depicted as a cartoon bear, peering into icons of government records buildings in search of information.
As we move from the web we all know today to the web of the future - the Semantic Web - what should we expect? Do we return to the predictions of The Jetsons for a computer that will do the job of humans? Or do we look for new and better ways for human beings to communicate with one another?
One sure bet is that with this new technology, as with every wave of new technology, there will be people - vendors, consultants, solutions providers - who will promise that this wave is different from the rest. That we will finally have the machine of our sci-fi dreams. HAL 2000 is here to cater to our every whim.
Just as sure is the bet that there will be some people who will go for it. They want a machine that will solve all their problems, and are willing to believe that this is the one.
But my bet for the real future of the semantic web is on the people, not the machines. The Semantic Web's success, like that of the web we know today, will come from how well it brings people together, how much it enables new modes of communication that we never thought of before. In the keynote talk at this year's STC2006 conference just asked the question; do you want to model your tehcnology on something that had a modest success several years ago, or something that has transformed business and technology with explosive growth, with no end in sight?
If you're looking for the semantic web success story, that's where you're going to find it.