The constellation plans to hire one more full-time professor for the 2008-09 academic year. Other faculty already working with the constellation include Sibel Adali, an associate professor of computer science studying the relationship between databases and the Semantic Web; Boleslaw Szymanski, director of the Center for Pervasive Computing and Networking; and Selmer Bringsjord, chair of the Department of Cognitive Science.
Both Hendler and McGuinness have made their reputations in the research community through their work on the Semantic Web. Many of Hendler’s articles, both in the popular press and in academic circles, have functioned as road maps for the computer science community. He is currently the editor of IEEE Intelligent Systems, one of the main journals in the field, and he is the first computer scientist to have been on the board of reviewing editors of Science, the largest scientific publication in America.
McGuinness’ work included co-authoring an influential Semantic Web standard known as the OWL Web Ontology Language, which has been recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium, the group Berners-Lee helped found to ensure that the Web maintains globally compatible formats so it remains a truly worldwide network. The pair collaborated on a widely cited 2000 article in IEEE Intelligent Systems, on applying these principles within the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (where Hendler once served as chief scientist of the Information Systems Office).
The hiring of Hendler and McGuinness has been recognized by researchers at other institutions as major “gets” for Rensselaer. “Jim Hendler is one of the most significant figures in getting the Semantic Web to where it is today,” says Jeff Heflin, a computer scientist at Lehigh University, who has collaborated with Hendler in the past. “I’m not sure where we would be right now without his work.” Similarly, McGuinness “has been crucial in the development of the description logic, and the Ontology Web Language we use,” says Heflin, who got to know McGuinness while she was co-directing Stanford University’s Knowledge Systems Lab, which she left to join Rensselaer.
Wei Zhao, dean of the School of Science and a computer scientist himself, says the team will have far-reaching impact both in its specific field and across the Institute. “We have a lot of potential here in this group, which the community can leverage and use to expand their own work,” he says.
Berners-Lee agrees. “The whole constellation should be a great success,” he says.
At the moment, further refining OWL will be an important task for the Semantic Web community. An ontology is a description of what exists in the world around us. In Web terms, that means a set of definitions pertaining to a particular subject area, plus a set of rules about how computers should read and handle the information in those documents. Health-care companiesone place where the Semantic Web is gaining tractionmay develop their own ontologies, while financial services companies may do the same. But it’s clear to researchers that interoperable systems would benefit all fields of inquiry.
OWL provides a more powerful set of rules, and a more flexible structure, than had previously existed, although, as McGuinness notes, it is by its nature a work in progress. “You never really want to have a system only one person can maintain,” says McGuinness, who emphasizes that OWL, like particular ontologies, is a work in progress. “I build languages that allow people to create ontologies, and I want to build environments that allow those ontologies to evolve.”