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The University of Southampton

Making Links: A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Web

Published: 26 February 2003

A lecture by Professor Wendy Hall, Head of the Department of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS), University of Southampton, to be given at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Wednesday 5 March at 7.30pm.

Intelligent computer agents that recognise our voices, can mimic associative thinking, and will change the way we interact with the World Wide Web forever, will be a key theme of Making Links: A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Web, a lecture by Professor Wendy Hall, of the University of Southampton, at the Royal Institution on Wednesday 5 March at 7.30pm.

According to Professor Hall, Head of the Department of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at Southampton, although the advent of the World Wide Web has changed the way we access data, we have become information-rich and knowledge poor and we need assistance if we are to acquire relevant, up-to-date information.

The solution, which is being developed by ECS, is to use agent-based computing in conjunction with the semantic web. "The so-called "semantic web" is an important necessary step in the evolution of information systems," comments Professor Hall. "In order for humans and computer processes or agents to find information more easily and understand what it is about, we need to describe that information when we store it, and develop more sophisticated classification techniques. Librarians have been telling us this for a long time - we are now listening."

Professor Hall believes that voice recognition technology will play a big part in these new developments. For example, if she were driving in her car to a business meeting, she would be able to ask her computer to tell her about the person she was going to meet.

"The agent will be able to access this information," comments Professor Hall. "It will also be able to be make associative links, much like the workings of the human mind, and can let me know some ice-breaker details like the person's hobbies or if they share my enthusiasm for George Clooney."

Professor Hall's department is well on the way to realising these new technologies. They have found a way to manage information for a major breast cancer campaign in which they are using medical imaging and knowledge technologies to bring relevant information to medical teams all over the UK, so they can make decisions quickly, based on accurate, up-to-date information. They are also developing technologies for contacts' lists to update themselves, and intelligent signage which will enable plasma screens to beam individually-tailored information at visitors as they enter the building.

Are we on the way to having computers that think?

"In the very long term, we may be able to build computers that think like people," comments Professor Hall. "But in the meantime we have developed computer processes that appear to make them intelligent, like their ability to use associative linking. They will always be able to perform tasks way beyond human capacity."

Notes for editors

  1. Wendy Hall is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and Head of the Department of Electronics and Computer Science. Her research interests include web technologies, hypermedia, and knowledge management. She is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and President-elect of the British Computer Society. She is a director of Active navigation Ltd.
  2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University, which celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 2002, has 20,000 students and over 4,500 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £235 million.
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