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Ontology is a term borrowed from philosophy where it refers to the ?essential nature of being?. Computer Science is far more pragmatic, so it defines ontology as an ?explicit specification of a shared conceptualization?. In order words, ontologies are a means of capturing human knowledge in a format that computers can understand and share.

Ontologies come from a branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI) called Knowledge Representation (KR). They aim to capture and classify knowledge in a taxonomy, or hierarchy of concepts. These ontologies can have varying degrees of formality. A controlled vocabulary is a very informal ontology: a list of words. While, at the other end of the spectrum, a description logic (DL) ontology is based on formal mathematical logic.

Enter the Internet. The next big development in the evolution of the Internet is the Semantic Web. It gives meaning (semantics), in a form that computers can understand, to the content of documents on the Web. This extra information is called metadata, data about the data. Computers can use it to autonomously navigate the Web, disambiguate research and collect information.

Furthermore, formal description logic based ontologies, such as those built using the OWL standard, allow automated inference to take place. This means that a computer can deduce new (implicitly stated) facts from such an ontology. This facilitates sophisticated intelligent querying, automated error checking and makes the ontology authoring process much simpler (the computer can add complex and difficult to maintainable inter-relations between concepts).

Ontologies have the potential to revolutionize how we use the Internet. AI will be able to better understand human knowledge, thus smarter computers will be able to do much more of the hard work for us and ultimately will be able to figure out solutions to problems we could never dream of solving.

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