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Focus On:

James Hendler,
Tetherless World Research Constellation

As a 12-year-old boy watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, James Hendler’s eyes became fixed on HAL-9000, the computer that could predict equipment failure, 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.

“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 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 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.”

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Hendler — who holds advanced degrees in computer science, cognitive psychology and human factors, and artificial intelligence — 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.

In 1999, Hendler joined the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in as a program manager and eventually chief scientist of information systems. There he collaborated with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and others to define the working framework of a “Semantic Web” — an extension of Berners-Lee’s development that would offer new information resources and services by enabling computers to interpret meaning.

The Semantic Web would serve more as a guide rather than an electronic library, according to Hendler. For example, a user could punch in a couple of phrases and the server would return a single vacation package based on preferred air 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 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.

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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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. ©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.