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Studying the Web

The inventor of the Web is launching a new university program that aims to improve the online experience.
November 3, 2006

The simplicity of the Web fails to capture its social complexity, according to its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The Web needs to be fundamentally changed from a place where information is displayed to one where it is interpreted, exchanged, and processed to better enable humanity to interact.

“The whole idea of the original Web was social, but what we have created is a microscopic infrastructure where the little things themselves are not quite sufficient in understanding the big things,” Berners-Lee said yesterday at a press conference announcing the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), a new project that will produce the tools for better understanding the Web and garner insight from the results. “We have a duty to understand all the beautiful, wonderful things we are producing and make them better,” said Berners-Lee who also is director of the World Wide Web Consortium, researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a professor at the University of Southampton.

This collaborative research project will create a new Web-science curriculum at the University of Southampton and at MIT.

“WSRI is about understanding the Web and understanding the scientific underpinnings of the Web, and thinking about what could be and what is possible,” said Rodney Brooks, one of the five WSRI leaders and the director of MIT’s CSAIL.

But the WSRI will reach beyond the computer department, Brooks said, to other scientific disciplines, such as biology and sociology. According to the WSRI’s website, the program is a call to action for scientists to set an agenda “for understanding the current, evolving and potential web.”

As a part of the program, Ph.D. students from multiple disciplines will be collaborating on new research projects in the Web-science field, explained Wendy Hall, also a WSRI leader and a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton. The WSRI will begin by modifying current courses. In a few years the leaders also hope to create new undergraduate degree courses.

“A whole other wave of technology is coming on that is going to affect how we run our lives, and things will happen that we can’t predict today,” said Hall.

The WSRI initiative is closely tied to the semantic Web, a World Wide Web Consortium project headed by Berners-Lee. Traditionally, the information on a webpage can’t be easily interpreted by a computer because the code often only handles how the page should look and not the meaning of the content. Proponents of the semantic Web are building a system that will bring more meaning to online data, so that new associations can be easily identified from data all over the Web. Inevitably, Berners-Lee believes, a Web-science program could provide the pieces of the semantic-Web puzzle.

“We are looking at this huge, complex system and trying to understand if we have the ability to change the underlying infrastructure [that] the mass of humanity created, so new things can happen,” said Berners-Lee. “When you open a whole new search area, you ask a lot more questions of what is possible.”

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