Home Web 2.0 Start-Ups = Social Science Experiments

Web 2.0 Start-Ups = Social Science Experiments

Recently I had the great pleasure to hear the inventor of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, give the keynote at the Tetherless World Conference organized by Rensellaer Polytechnique Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY (see RWW’s live blogging of the event). He is such an entertaining and thought-provoking speaker that it is hard to isolate one nugget, but after a few weeks I am still thinking about one comment he made about start-up entrepreneurs conducting social science experiments.

This was in the context of Rensellaer launching the Tetherless World Research Constellation, described by them as follows:

“The World Wide Web changed the ways people work, play, communicate, collaborate, and educate. But without new research aimed at understanding the current, evolving and potential Web, we may miss or delay opportunities for new and revolutionary capabilities.

To model the Web, to understand the architectural principles that have provided for its growth, and to ensure it supports the basic social values of trustworthiness, personal control over information, and respect for social boundaries, then we must pursue a research agenda that targets the Web and its use as a primary focus of attention.”

Rensselaer’s Tetherless World Constellation addresses this emerging area of “Web Science,” focusing on the World Wide Web and its future use.

Faculty in the constellation explore the research and engineering principles that underlie the Web, enhance the Web’s reach beyond the desktop and laptop computer, and develop new technologies and languages to expand the capabilities of the Web.

We use powerful scientific and mathematical techniques to explore the modeling of the Web from network- and information-centric views. We aim to make the next generation Web natural to use while responsive to a growing variety of policy and social needs.”

The point is that we study Computer Science but the Web is a lot more than the application of Computer Science. It is the social dimension that makes it interesting and nobody has been systematically studying that. For scientists this is marvelous unexplored territory. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, being a scientist, looks at all the wild, apparently chaotic Web 2.0 innovation in the same way a scientist looks at experiments. In that context, entrepreneurs run experiments by launching something onto the Web. If it “catches fire”, the investors clamor to get on board and people make a lot of money. If it fails in the market, people lose money. But to a scientist, both results are equally useful, providing additional data points from which theories can be deduced.

It is personally exciting for me to have Rensellaer take such a leadership position in this emerging science as they are close to where I live in what has historically been the “sleepy government town of Albany”. All the tech action was either south to New York City or east to Boston. There have been attempts for some time to create a Tech Valley high tech zone in the area. But this new drive by Rensellaer will make a difference.

Rensellaer have brought in some real academic leaders to drive this initiative, including Jim Hendler and Deborah McGuiness:

Jim Hendler is the Tetherless World Senior Constellation Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Departments of Computer Science and Cognitive Science. He is a Fellow of both the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and the British Computer Society.

He is also the former Chief Scientist of the Information Systems Office at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and was awarded the US Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Medal in 2002.

He is the Editor in Chief of IEEE Intelligent Systems and is the first computer scientist to serve on the Board of Reviewing Editors for Science.

Deborah McGuinness is of the creators of the Web language that is ushering in the next generation of the World Wide Web — the OWL Web Ontology Language — Deborah McGuinness is widely known in her field.

McGuinness comes to Rensselaer from Stanford University where she last led the Knowledge Systems Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

McGuinness has published more than 100 papers on knowledge-based systems, ontology environments, configuration, search technology and intelligent applications and holds five patents. Prior to joining Stanford, McGuiness worked for Bell Laboratories (later AT&T) were she co-developed a predecessor language to today’s ontology Web language.

She is CEO and president of her own consulting firm and is on the board of the Semantic Web Science Foundation as well as a number of startup companies. She is a member of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and the Association for Computing Machinery.

Rensellaer is clearly staking a position in the elite technology world usually reserved for Stanford and MIT. This will create some new technology. I caught an early glimpse of some of the web technology coming out of the Rensellaer labs and it looked very exciting. I intend to go back to there and report on that in a future post.

Combine this with a good quality of life and lower cost of living (compared to say New York City or Silicon Valley) and you get a fertile environment for start-ups.

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