Inside Rensselaer
Future of the Web: James Hendler Leads Tetherless World Research Constellation
* James Hendler
James Hendler, senior constellation professor of Rensselaer’s Tetherless World Research Constellation

As a 12-year-old boy in 1969 watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, James Hendler’s eyes became fixed on HAL-9000, the computer that could predict equipment failure, be a team player, throw in a few philosophical lines for good measure, and sing “Bicycle Built for Two” while going insane.

The movie inspired the senior constellation professor of Rensselaer’s Tetherless World Research Constellation into a lifelong career in artificial intelligence (AI) and computing that has spanned more than three decades.

“The people in the movie were boring, but the computer was fascinating,” he says with a chuckle. “I wanted to create that level of artificial intelligence someday. The idea of a computer that, not so much could talk, but could understand and do so much was just brilliant.”

Appointed in January, Hendler will lead the constellation in the development of technologies that will increase the scope of the Web-accessible world in which personal digital assistants, cameras, music-listening devices, cell phones, laptops, and other devices have converged to offer more accessible interactive information and communication.

Incorporating a heavy dose of research in pervasive computing and distributed intelligent systems, the constellation will encompass multidisciplinary teams of senior and junior faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates in information technology, computer science, and cognitive science, and will reach out to the entire campus for support and collaboration.

“This constellation is the start of something very exciting,” says Hendler. “I wanted to find a computer science department that was growing and a university that would be open-minded and, most important, would support interdisciplinary work among many fields and universities. These are academic qualities that Rensselaer is well-known for.”

Hendler and Berners-Lee defined the working framework of a “Semantic Web,” an extension of the World Wide Web that would offer new information resources and services by enabling computers to interpret meaning.
A Science of the Web
Hendler specializes in the emerging field of Web science, which encompasses understanding the Web in its full richness, exploring the underlying technologies that make it work and its social and policy implications, and developing new technologies to expand the Web and make it more useful.

Last August, Science published a paper co-written by Hendler and Web creator Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium, senior research scientist at MIT, and professor at the University of Southampton, along with three other colleagues, calling for the creation of an interdisciplinary “science of the Web” that would accelerate the development of new approaches, while ensuring that the Web develops in a way that benefits society as a whole.

Hendler met Tim Berners-Lee in 1999 when he joined the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a program manager and eventually became the chief scientist of information systems.

“I took the job at DARPA with the idea of looking at how AI [artificial intelligence] and the Web could come together, and so I thought the best person to talk to would be the one who invented the Web,” Hendler says. The two researchers, working together with a number of others, defined the working framework of a “Semantic Web,” an extension of the World Wide Web that would offer new information resources and services by enabling computers to interpret meaning.

In 2001, the two researchers published a Scientific American paper (with Ora Lassila, a Research Fellow at the Nokia Research Center Cambridge) that has become the most referenced work on the subject of the Semantic Web.

Artificial intelligence already is used in such commercial entities as Google, which uses AI to conduct searches better. But, that’s not the same as understanding what the words mean, Hendler says.

In contrast, the Semantic Web would serve more as a guide rather than an electronic library. For example, a user could punch in a couple of phrases and the server would return a single vacation package based on preferred flight schedule, age of children, number of people, and general interests. In this case, the computer almost acts as a personal travel agent.

Although the Semantic Web is still in its infancy, a number of start-up companies, such as Radar Networks, are incorporating new techniques based on this Web framework that offer new ways for users to interact with the Web. There is now even a test version of a Semantic search engine called “Swoogle” at the University of Maryland.

AI and Computing: the Beginning — And Now
The Queens native began to pursue his computing career at Stuyvesant High School in the 1960s. The math and science magnet school had one large keypunch/keycard computer that filled up a room.

Hendler went on to earn a bachelor’s in computer science and artificial intelligence from Yale University, which had some of the first AI programs in the country.

“What I worked on was language and computing in trying to figure out how get a computer to understand the human language — how to build HAL,” he says.

Hendler worked for a few years at Texas Instruments, in one of the first corporate AI groups, where he continued his research in language processing and also computer-human interface design. While at the company, Hendler earned his master’s degree in cognitive psychology and human factors engineering at Southern Methodist University. He then received master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science and artificial intelligence from Brown University.

Before coming to Rensselaer, Hendler was the director of the Joint Institute for Knowledge Discovery and co-director of the Maryland Information and Network Dynamics (MIND) Laboratory at the University of Maryland. He has written more than 200 technical papers in the areas of artificial intelligence, Semantic Web, agent-based computing, and high-performance processing.

So, what does Hendler think of the world of AI and computing these days since his favorite movie came out nearly 30 years ago?

“I am simultaneously awed, but also a bit disappointed. I feel like we should have gone so much further by now. I mean, we now have some of the technologies to build HAL, but we still can’t build it. And we’re getting long past 2001.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 1, Number 1, July 2007
©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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