Enter the maze

Inspiring Wendy Hall

What inspires researchers to dedicate their lives to study one area? In the case of computer scientist Dame Wendy Hall it was a TV programme called Hyperland starring former Dr Who Tom Baker and writer Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame that inspired her to become one of the most influential researchers of her area.

A bored woman with a remote control

A pioneer and visionary in the area of web science, many of Dame Wendy's ideas have started to appear in the next generation web: the 'great web that is yet to come' (as Douglas Adams might put it), otherwise known as the semantic web. She has stacked up a whole bunch of accolades for her work. She is a Professor at the University of Southampton, a former President of the British Computer Society and now the first non-US President of the most influential body in computer science, the Association for Computing Machinery. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and this year she topped it all and gaining her most impressive sounding title for sure by being made a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

So how did that TV programme set her going?

Douglas Adams and Tom Baker acted out a vision of the future, a vision of how TV was going to change. At the time the web didn't exist and TV was just something you sat in front of and passively watched. The future they imagined was interactive TV. TV that was personal. TV that did more than just entertain but served all your information needs.

In the programme Douglas Adams was watching TV, vegetating in front of it...and then Tom Baker appeared on Douglas's screen. He started asking him questions...and then he stepped out of the TV screen. He introduced himself as a software agent, someone who had all the information ever put into digital format at his fingertips. More than that he was Douglas's personal agent. He would use that information to answer any questions Douglas had. Not just to bring back documents (Google-style) that had something to do with the question and leave you to work out what to do with it all, but actually answer the question. He was an agent that was servant and friend, an agent whose character could even be changed to fit his master's mood.

Wendy was inspired...so inspired that she decided she was going to make that improbable vision a reality. Reality hasn't quite caught up yet, but she is getting there.

Most people who think about it at all believe that Tim Berners-Lee invented the idea of the web and of hypertext, the links that connect web pages together. He was the one that kick-started it into being a global reality, making it happen, but actually lots of people had been working in research labs round the world on the same ideas for years before, Wendy included, with her Microcosm hypermedia system. Tim's version of hypermedia - interactive information - was a simple version, one simple enough to get the idea off the ground. Its time is coming to an end now though.

What is coming next? The semantic web: and it will be much more powerful. It is a version of the web much closer to that TV program, a version where the web's data is not just linked to other data but where words, images, pictures, videos are all tagged with meaning: tags that the software agents of the future can use to understand.

The structure is now there for it to happen. What is needed is for people to start to use it, to write their web pages that way, to actually make it everyday reality. Then the web programmers will be able to start innovating with new ideas, new applications that use it, and the web scientists like Wendy will be able to study it: to work out what works for people, what doesn't and why.

Then maybe it's your turn to be inspired and drive the next leap forward.

This article is inspired by a keynote talk Wendy Hall gave at the ITiCSE conference in Madrid, 2008.