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The Greatest Living Briton explodes

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So there we were. In a room devoted to Engineering, the man voted the Greatest Living Briton had exploded in front of me.

Sir Tim Berners Lee, co-inventor of the World Wide Web, was at Southampton University to deliver an inaugural lecture for School of Electronics and Computer Science, and promote his latest initiative.

There's a whole new science out there waiting to be explored, called "Web Science", and he was here to explain how. The Web Science Initiative was "an umbrella, with lots of projects" around the world, he said.

Flanked by the great and the good, Professors Nigel Shadbolt, vice president of the British Computer Society, and Wendy Hall, and James Hendler. Sir Tim said he hoped this would set the agenda for years to come.

This new science comes with some grand claims attached. Shadbolt said he hoped the web would attract a new kind of undergraduate to computer science departments, who presumably had been bored by all that old-fashioned science and engineering.

Shadbolt implied we could learn a lot about humanity from looking at the Interweb.

"What actually happens on the web when people participate is all psychology: it's more accurate to think of the web as humanity connected," he said.

"It's people: things get published by people, the blogs are made by people, the links between them that Google follows are made by people."

Hendler jumped in:

"I was the external reader for a paper for somebody here at ECS. The first line of her thesis is 'This Document Is About People'. And I put down explanation marks and "hurrays!" That's a student who's beginning to understand web science!"

(So that's how you get on in Computing, dear readers).

But this was all a bit much for your reporter.

"The assumption behind everything you've said is that this research will create some kind of knowledge," I asked. "The other assumption is that the links you'll be examining to provide this knowledge are generated by humans.

"Now when I search for a term on Google Blogsearch or Technorati, two thirds of those results are robots. People at Google tell me between twenty per cent and a third of the index is junk - Google doesn't know which third."

"So, er... what's your research going to be worth?"

"That's one of the good questions," said Professor Hall.

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