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Untangling the Web
By Peter Dizikes

Looking for a cheap plane ticket to San Francisco? Want to read a transcription of a human genome? Would you like to find other people interested in bird watching? Or are you just seeking a good place to buy red wine in Troy, NY?

The Internet has put so much information at our disposal that a quick search can turn up hundreds, thousands, or millions of answers to these kinds of simple queries.

Whether or not those answers are correct — or useful — is another matter. Many Google searches oriented around the human genome, for instance, will turn up more than a million answers, making it hard to identify the most useful pieces of information. A Google query for “red wine + Troy New York,” meanwhile, turns up a flower-delivery service and a Honda dealership among its top 10 results, but no liquor store.

As much as the Web has changed the way we live in ways unimaginable 15 years ago, it still is an imperfect system. By changing the way data is encoded into Web pages and transmitted among them, we may soon develop highly reliable, efficient new ways of locating useful information. These tools would not replace the Internet search engines we use so often, but would add a new dimension to our ability to find things online. In fact, that’s the goal of the Rensselaer Tetherless World Research Constellation. The constellation, which formally launches this year, aims to revamp the entire Web’s ability to handle information in ways that would benefit everyone from casual browsers to leading-edge academic researchers.

The Tetherless World constellation will guide research on technologies that will support a Web-accessible world in which personal digital assistants, cameras, music-listening devices, cell phones, laptops, and other devices converge. 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. “When you look at the Web you might just regard it as this great big network,” says James Hendler, senior professor in the new constellation, who joined Rensselaer last year. “But we want to keep it moving and growing, keep building it, and always ask what it needs.”

The main vehicle for this work is the Semantic Web, a concept shaped several years ago by the World Wide Web’s founder, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and developed by an expanding group of academic researchers, including Hendler and Deborah McGuinness, another highly regarded computer science professor who joined Rensselaer’s emerging constellation last year. In a seminal article in Scientific American in 2001, Berners-Lee, Hendler, and Ora Lassila of the Nokia Research Center in Cambridge, Mass., wrote that the Semantic Web will function so that “information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation.” Thus, they concluded that computers will better “understand” the information in Web pages and produce better results.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.