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Professor Wendy Hall speaks

Interview Still hates computers
Fri Oct 01 2010, 10:20

"I STILL DO HATE COMPUTERS," says Wendy Hall. Ironic, since she is one of the most distinguished computer scientists in the country. She is the current president of the Association for Computing Machinery, past president of the British Computer Society, former head of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science, the first dean of Southampton's new Faculty of Physical and Applied Sciences, and only the second female computer scientist, after Steve Shirley, to be made a Dame.

"I loathed Fortran," she adds. "I never dreamt I would end up with the career I ended up with."

wendyhallHall, whose current passion is creating Web science, got hooked on multimedia so early that one of her professors told her continuing in that direction would eliminate her future in computer science – there were no journals or established conferences. Fortunately, her boss disagreed.

Born in 1962, Hall grew up in London during the war recovery years in a family without much money. But, she says, "I had the most fantastic education because my parents were determined to put me through good schooling, and it was all free. I think my generation were hugely fortunate to have all that."

Hall began as a pure mathematician; her PhD dissertation was on algebraic topology. When a hiring freeze precluded an academic job, she took up teaching mathematics in a teacher training college.

"I got interested in computers there," she says. "Then I realised I was more interested in that than maths." She found a lectureship at Southampton and there she's stayed.

"My thrust has always been trying to make these things easier to use," she says. "I still have an abstract way of thinking – what's going to happen, rather than how it's going to happen. I'm not deeply interested in coding." This is one of those English understatements: "I don't think I could have stuck at computing if I'd been having to worry about operating systems and compilers."

From speculating about how computers would eventually be used in teaching, "I got hooked on experimenting with putting video from laser discs onto a computer screen." Sure, now kids do this every day with DVDs and YouTube, but her video was analog, not digital. "It was quite tricky."

Slowly things changed: the Internet began to emerge as a global network, email arrived in academia, and Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart's message about hypermedia began to be heard.

Nelson especially had been talking about hypermedia since the 1960s. "[But] we were one of the first groups to really start doing it." Their patented system, Microcosm, ran on a closed network of PCs.

"I met Tim Berners-Lee and saw him demonstrate the Web in 1991 at a hypertext conference in Texas, and I remember thinking, 'It's very primitive hypertext'. But of course what he got right and so many of us got wrong was that it had to be first and foremost on the network – open, free, and universal."

Hall calls Berners-Lee's decision to make the Web free his "great legacy"; it has allowed the Web's growth and experimentation. Trying to understand it formally is the point of the Web Science Research Initiative, which she's co-founded alongside Berners-Lee, W3C policy director Daniel Weitzner and Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at Southampton.

"The Web is still a baby in the digital age," she says. "That's partly what I'm passionate about in Web science – what makes the Web what it is, how it evolves and will evolve, what are the scenarios that could kill it or change it in ways that would be detrimental to its use." The timing seems to be right: the two-day conference they're convening filled up quickly.

The need for this initiative became clear to Hall while talking to Berners-Lee about the long-heralded semantic Web and its frustrating failure to emerge.

"Tim always had an idea of what it was going to do and why we needed it, but it got hijacked by the AI community and got sucked into trying to solve huge problems like the meaning of life. Around 2004 to 2005, Tim was beginning to realise that the crucial thing was to get data out there and see what happened." The missing link, they realised, is what people do with it.

"What creates the Web are us who put the content on it," she says, "and that's not natural or engineered." Instead, it's a question of human behaviour in relation to technology.

"There is science here, a new thing that we can explore" Hall says. "How to build a better Web for the future by anticipating what people would and wouldn't do with it. The system of technology and people and governments all interacting to make things happen, and trying to understand and track how to enable people to do new things with the Web. And it all moves faster than we can observe, so you can't do experiments in the sort of traditional way. I'm having to learn new methodologies, and it sort of brings my whole world together. I'm happy in the twilight years of my research career."

Twilight? She isn't even 50 yet. "I'm not sure I will have the energy to create a new science in the future." µ


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