According to "SemanticWeb.org", the Semantic Web is a vision: "the idea of having data on the web defined and linked in a way that can be used by machines". In other words, I can take my <ADDRESS> tag from the article above and in the Semantic Web, assuming it has been created according to the (as yet undefined) Semantic Web spec and send it to any Semantic Web machine. This machine will then know that the tag it refers to is the location of someone's home or office.
This is exactly the sort of thing implied by statements such as: "XML will empower computers to do business by themselves". Apparently the claims I was sceptical about were confused between the capabilities of XML and what they had heard about the Semantic Web. Possibly the confusion arises because the intention of the Semantic Web is to have a similarly simple syntax as that for XML. Thus XML and Semantic Web are often mentioned together. They are, however, most definitely not the same thing. In any case I am happy to have discovered that my scepticism was well founded.
I would love to now go onto to give a detailed description of the Semantic Web. Sadly, I have to admit that, having read a fair amount of material concerning the Semantic Web, I am now even more confused than before! If you are interested, www.semanticweb.org is a good place to start. To me, my confusion just shows the complexity of the task ahead. For, whilst it is not difficult to understand the specs for HTML, XHTML, CSS and DOM and with a bit of effort those of XML and its components, trying to get to grips with the Semantic Web is another thing altogether for the Semantic Web novice. If you thought XML was overflowing with acronyms, you should take a look at the Semantic Web. On top of this terms such as ontology, inference, assertion, axiom, intractability and higher order logic are commonly encountered and hint at the fact that this task encompasses linguistics, mathematics and metaphysics. The whole exercise appears to take on a philosophical nature. There's certainly a lot of debating going on.
It is important to note right now though, that the Semantic Web is far from complete and certainly not available as a finished product along the lines of HTML or XML. On the other hand the sheer scale of the undertaking coupled with its very open approach means that the possibilities could be quite frightening. It may well make the Matrix look like kids stuff. Artificial Intelligence, though, is one thing the Semantic Web definitely is not. The Semantic Web is not attempting to make machines understand our language. Rather, it is trying to define a way to allow us to express ourselves in more detail to machines.