Last year, around March, I set off on a journey to explore the world of Andrea Volpini. I wanted to know more about the Man who makes web content talk – as Scott Abbel dubbed him recently in an interview for Intercom.
A year and a Jason Link (Andrea’s personal assistant whom you can ask questions about things: https://goo.gl/suLhCD ) later, here we are, coddiwompling across webs of meanings. We imagined to be the people from the movie Sideways, but instead of wine, Andrea will be showing me around the lands, the beauties and the subtleties of machine-readable data.
In this Dialogue, Andrea is sharing his vision about the Web, his way to explain AI to his two beautiful daughters and his road towards the creation of WordLift, a tool for Semantic Web weavers, as I saw it in Weaving Linked Data into Texts.
Enjoy the sideways!
Hi Andrea, please introduce yourself….
I was born in Rome and travelled the world like most of my generation. We’re called xennials, this being a generation bridge between millennial and the famous (or infamous) generation x. Half analogue, half digital most of us have worked towards resilience by discovering the beauty of mindfulness in a postmodern society. I worked my path through intuition and faith for the future. Fascinated by numbers and by the left brain world we live in, I’m guided by the endless desire to explore empathy, to connect with other people and to find out who I am.
I’m 40 years old, in love with a beautiful woman and father of two little girls. The future is feminine, no doubt about it.
I dropped out of university and I began working on the Internet while still in high school with my long time friend, school buddy and business partner David.
What is the Web for you?
I was studying in high school in the state of Wisconsin when I got my first email. It was back in 1994 and I registered an account with America On Line using cyberandy as my nickname. As exchange student in the little town of Mount Horeb I was living on the “weird side”. I ordered a big desktop PC, became friend with Will Baguhn who was just about to launch the first bulletin board system in town and played hacky sack all day with Kip Hyatt who had blue hair, a big heart and a dark sense of humor. I was not much into Prom or masculine sports and I had no doubt – I was going to help on building the digital world we live in today.
The web is an ocean of the human consciousness. It’s the endless universe of our meaningful lives and the single point from which our species is starting to evolve (and devolve) at an unprecedented speed. It also represents a very specific phase in human history where rational thinking blends with creativity and intuition. We’ve lived for many generations with the myth of the left brain.
The web has demonstrated on scale that emotions and empathy have equal rights to rule our world. Business designers, developers, humanists, scientists and computational designers have worked in the last 20 years shoulder to shoulder to create the Internet as we know it: an ecosystem without boundaries, extremely fragile and yet capable of connecting any atom on Earth.
When did you first meet the Semantic Web?
I’ve worked for the early years of the Web in building online services for public institutions such as the Italian and the European Parliament. I’ve spent the first 13th years of my career organising the vast amount of information that was being digitalised by the Italian Chamber of deputies and by the Senate of the Republic (among other European institutions).
While still in my twenties I’ve been experimenting with all sort of technologies to facilitate the access of governmental information and to serve the needs of public citizens and of the private sector. As the web agency that worked behind the biggest websites of our central government we’ve been constantly on a mission to anticipate and to prepare for the upcoming trends in the area of information extraction, content management and user interaction. Reducing the time spent in finding a law or simplify the access to sessions’ proceedings impact the lives of millions of people every day that rely on these information. We crafted our own tools and organised ourselves as artisans. We always kept the focus on maximising automation and had little or no division of labor but a small cohesive number of highly skilled craftsmen with different backgrounds.
When Semantic Web was first introduced, in the little world of the people that were making the web infrastructure of today, it was immediately perceived as a necessity. The intuition seemed so powerful and so much needed in our small little world that we thought the change was imminent. It clearly wasn’t. It took many years before we could see that semantic technologies could really became pervasive as they are now. After all, organising data and adding a meaningful context to information, did require a massive computational resources that weren’t available at that time.
There’s more hype about AI and less common sense. How would you explain AI to your kids?
I will soon get into the topic with the girls, they deserve an explanation on this front. The narrative would probably start with a simple demo on what happens to dad’s brain waves when he hears the sound of the gong. I’ve been experimenting with wearable EEG technologies for many years now using various devices and “testing”…different persons in different states of consciousness.
Kids have to love and nurture their brain just like any other part of their physical body. The next step would be to introduce the difference between conscious and unconscious brain activities. Our conscious side is what makes us jump on the bicycle, go to the grocery store, run at the playground and prepare a meal (and a lot more than that). Several neuroscientists agree that 95 percent of our brain activity is beyond the state of conscious awareness. Various studies have been conducted and had revealed that between 2 and 5% of our cognitive activities (decisions, actions, emotions and behaviours) are conscious whereas the remaining is generated in a non-conscious way.
Computers are being trained to replicate and improve this 2 – 5% conscious linear thinking that our brain does and hopefully make the world a better place. We as humans need help, to cope with societal challenges that we failed to solve in the last century by approaching these issues (wars, hunger, poverty, diseases, …) in a radical new way. As machines empower our rational thinking, our mission will be to focus on our inner selves and to untap the unconscious mind. This helps us connect our spiritual souls on a complete different level. We can communicate with brainwaves. Compassion is a communication device incredibly more powerful than today’s smartphones.
We can see similar EEG patterns being activated when two lovers recall a specific moment of their life together. I’ve seen and recorded myself the EEG of trained yogis with several years of meditation and measured a state of unprecedented calm and relaxation. The brain communicates with the universe and this has been studied recently with the diffusion of direct neural interfaces like EEG wearables. I had my own experiences with transcendental meditation and other holistic practices and I know for sure that this is the new Internet. I call it Internet Yoga: it is the unconscious mind that connects humans (and not human) beings.
Our goal as species is to untap its potentials while machines help us reducing inequality, poverty and social exclusion. I know it sounds way too optimistic but, hey reality is what we think, isn’t it? We have to stand out, make up our mind and chose which side we want to play with. Rationally we can clearly be extremely pessimistic about our future. We could pass on this pessimistic vision to our kids and then yes, humanity will be doomed and on the verge of extinction.
What about this interesting connection between chatbots and semantic web technologies and it is part of your professional activities. would you please share some more in Plain English, or Italian :))
Semantic Web technologies are all about helping machines understand human knowledge. Chatbots are machines invented to help humans do things in a more natural way and this is really the connection between these two worlds.Semantic Web technologies are all about helping machines understand human knowledge. Chatbots are machines invented to help humans do things in a more natural way and this is really the connection between these two worlds. Click To Tweet
A chatbot to sustain a more natural conversation with a human being needs to share a common understanding of the world, it needs to know things (or at least pretend to know things).
When Eliza, the first chatbot created back in 1966 at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory by Joseph Weizenbaum, was conceived there was no way of pulling information out of a knowledge graph. The conversation was effective (Weizenbaum’s secretary even thought that it was a human behind it in the very beginning) but it was limited by the missing link with the knowledge humans have about the world.
Right now, in our early experiments of WordLift’s powered chatbots, we still use the pattern matching and and substitution methodology used by Eliza to give users the illusion of understanding but, you can ask to the program all the things you have structured on your website. Things like, “is Teodora a friend of Andrea?” or “Is WordLift related to SEO?” And so on, all these questions can be accessed by reading the data semantically structured in your website.
How did you come up with the idea about WordLift?
I spent 13 years of my life in one company. A web agency in Trastevere, one of the characteristics neighborhood of Rome, not distant from my home. We began with few close friends and we grew to a 50 people company; we developed and managed (among other projects) the website of the Italian Parliament (both the Chamber of deputies and the Senate of the Republic). Life changes unexpectedly. The body’s cells replace themselves every 7 to 10 years. A Swedish molecular biologist named Dr. Jonas Frisen studied the body tissue renewal a long time ago. Old cells die and they are replaced by new ones. My cell renewal process probably completed in these 10+ years (and then I was probably too lazy for some time before I made the final move into my new life).
I had been passionate since the early 2000 about Semantic Web technologies and as I was transitioning into my new body I went to a Meetup in Rome organised by the Semantic Technology Laboratory of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) the Italian public agency that supports scientific and technological research and I was invited to participate in a research project. At that time I was working with three other good friends that also moved away from our previous venture and we decided to build something for WordPress that would democratize semantic technologies. This is really how WordLift was born. David, Maurizio, Francesco and Andrea and the idea of bringing semtech to bloggers and websites owners around the world.
When did the dots web visibility, WordPress and linked data connected in your head?
It was immediate and yet it took 4 years.
Semantic Web was the topic we had worked on in previous research programs to make our proprietary CMS smarter. We left the company we confounded in Trastevere along with our proprietary CMS and Maurizio had no doubts: bloggers are going to love a semantic WordPress.
The reality was that bloggers don’t really care about Semantics or Linked Data (now maybe they are becoming more conscious about their data and how it can help distribute their content), they need an audience. They write and they want other people to read what they write. Semantic Technologies in 2011 were starting to be adopted by search engines with the initiative of schema.org and the early releases of their Knowledge Graphs. We were at a turning point where understanding the content was becoming a business imperative. And this is how we got into the findability space.
Moreover – as we were finally coming out of research – I started to look for venture capital and at that point right from our first newsletter I received a call over Skype from Boris Demaria CEO of WooRank and early supporter of our technology. Meeting Boris was a clear sign that findability was the main driver to use our product. It was also the begining of a great new journey with someone to learn from. Boris and the WooRankers had created a clockwork to scrutinize websites along with a successful SaaS business in the SEO industry. Really we couldn’t find a better match and I am still very excited about the work that we are doing with WooRank to help companies improve content findability and boost organic traffic.
How did you end up in Egypt?
It was now more than a decade ago. We used to provide, in Italy, to mobile operators the technology to manage and deliver video content over GPRS and 3G networks, it was pioneering at that time to compress a/v content, build playlists and deliver it as live stream or VOD to mobile phones. The solution we created was good and when the Mobile Operator Wind was acquired by the brilliant copt billionaire Naguib Sawiris, his team looked closely at all the technologies of Wind to chose the ones that was worth exporting in the other operators of the group. Long story short we close a first huge contract with the first Egyptian mobile operator in 2006 to bring mobile TV in the middle east. I immediately fell in love with Egypt. The population was young and economics where promising. In 2009 we were expanding across north africa and we decided to set up a company there.
Who will interview the interviewer
Andrea, I have this section Who will interview the interviewer and would like to ask you to ask me a question or two.
Andrea: In recent studies (and I’m thinking here for instance of the Machine Theory of Mind – a recent study published by researchers at DeepMind), neural networks are being used as meta-learning devices to study and build models around the agents they encounter. We used to study humans and their behaviours but recently we – as species – are starting to grow interest in the study of machines. What should be the scope of these researches? Can an antrophology of machines really help new generations understand the world we’re building?
Teodora: What a deep question. And a controversial one. I believe the best way to help generations understand what we are building is to teach them two things. And not sure they can be called anthropology of machines, the anthropos root bothers me a bit, together with our inclination to anthropomorphise things (and Gods, and looks like AIs. So the two things are:
a. There is no deus ex silico
Although he idea of algorithms doing what they do without us being able to follow the workings of the decisions, (ref. The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI) scares me a bit, what helps me stay brave and curious about AI and machines being our algorithmic helpers is the concept of Semantic-Cognitive-Perceptual Computing. I have learned a lot from Dr. Amit Sheth in the recent yeas, following his ideas and discussion with student here:
b. Imagination is the best ever techne for connecting the dots. Connecting the nodes is what comes after. Machines aid our analytical processes, not our powers to synthesise and think unthinkable thoughts.
Andrea: You have dedicated tremendous energy in the study of the semantic web and machine-friendly content, what’s behind your interest in studying how human-knowledge can be transferred to machines? What’s the big motivation behind.
It is the philologist in me and the zest for texts and the love for the poetic flow.
Let me share something I like to think is a documentary account and you will be able to feel how I feel about the idea of a brave new form of textuality (btw look at this analog-digital mix – a text, living in a book, transfers to live in a blog, waiting to happen):
I am fascinated by the idea that we are textual beings and that everything is deeply intertwingled. And it is our systems that empower our digital sense-making and our so weird and so beautiful cyber co-existence, from which two spur incredible brave new texts, things and actions. That’s why.
Speaking of why’s, let’s conclude with a why:
What is the Why Behind the Name WordLift? Why WordLift
It was really David’s idea 🙂
What’s behind the meaning of each Word? What happens when a machine “lift” the written word? What can it see?What’s behind the meaning of each Word? What happens when a machine “lift” the written word? What can it see? Click To Tweet
In the beginning we also thought of WordLift as the evolution of WordPress. That was also a reason behind the name.