The research threads running through the World Wide Web

14/03/2019

Exactly 30 years ago a young computer scientist proposed an information sharing platform that would change the world forever. At Swiss-based CERN, the world’s largest physics laboratory, Tim Berners-Lee developed his internet-based hyperlink system that would become known as the World Wide Web, and a new era of digital communication was born.

As part of the 30th anniversary celebrations this week, the London-born scientist was expected to be among the guests at the Science Museum, talking about his invention, how it has shaped lives, and how to tackle the challenges it continues to face.

On display at the event was the original NeXT computer which was used by Professor Berners-Lee to design the World Wide Web.

But as we celebrate 30 years of what the World Wide Web has done for us, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) looks at what it has done and continues to do for the World Wide Web, focusing on some of the key people and projects.

Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC)

Technologies developed at the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton are at the cutting edge of international manufacturing, healthcare and commerce, and its optical amplifiers are fundamental to powering the internet.

Supported for over four decades by the EPSRC, ORC researchers have created 11 spin-out companies, generating £200 million in revenue and creating over 600 jobs. Over 800 ORC alumni are in key positions in academia and industry globally.

Professor Alf Adams

Professor Alf Adams’ ground-breaking 1980s research, at the University of Surrey, into infrared lasers paved the way for low-cost, low-power technology that has transformed the 21st century, from systems that cool the technology that drives the internet to barcode and Blu-Ray disc technology.

Supported by EPSRC’s predecessor, the Science and Engineering Research Council, Professor Adams’ research was based on new ways to transform information into pulses of light, and led to ‘strained quantum well laser’ technology which can provide much higher data capacity than conventional laser devices while using less electrical energy. The internet in particular relies on this feature, which makes it possible to send information around the planet much more quickly than was hitherto possible.

At first, there were no takers for Professor Adams’ technology – his idea was considered too radical – until Dutch manufacturer, Philips, saw its potential. The rest is history that’s still in the making.

Professor Wendy Hall

In 1996, Professor Wendy Hall, from the University of Southampton was awarded an EPSRC Senior Fellowship to develop the multimedia assistants of the future. One of the first computer scientists to undertake serious research in multimedia and hypermedia, Professor Hall has been at the forefront of this multifaceted discipline ever since. The influence of her work has been significant in many areas including digital libraries, the development of the Semantic Web, and the emerging research discipline of Web Science – the science of the World Wide Web.

Among over 20 EPSRC research grants, in 2008 Professor Hall led a highly successful Digital Economy Research Cluster focusing on the development of the internet as a powerful and universal platform.

In 2014, Professor Dame Hall was a Founding Director, along with Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Daniel J Weitzner, of the Web Science Research Initiative.

In 2009, she became director of the new EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Web Science Innovation, based at the University of Southampton. After a successful 2013 grant application, the centre has evolved into the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Web Science Innovation.

Sir Nigel Shadbolt

Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and one of the world’s leading experts in web science, has held over 20 EPSRC grants over more than 25 years, and is founding director of the Open Data Institute, with Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

From 2000 to 2007, he led and directed the EPSRC Advanced Knowledge Technologies Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration, which produced some of the most important Semantic Web research of the period.

In 2009, the Prime Minister appointed Professors Shadbolt and Berners-Lee as Information Advisers to transform access to Public Sector Information. This work led to the highly acclaimed data.gov.uk site which now provides a portal to thousands of datasets.

In 2012, he was awarded a £6.2 million, five-year EPSRC Programme Grant to lead the SOCIAM (Social Machines) project, which is researching pioneering methods of supporting purposeful human interaction on the World Wide Web.

Graphene

EPSRC-funded researchers say wonder material graphene, the strongest, thinnest material on Earth, with incredible qualities as an electrical conductor, could dramatically boost broadband internet speed. By combining graphene with metallic nanostructures, the scientists, from Manchester and Cambridge universities, have shown a 20-fold enhancement in harvesting light by graphene, which paves the way for advances in high-speed internet and other communications essential for the evolution of modern infrastructure.

Graphene was discovered in 2004 by EPSRC-funded scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work.

Next Generation Paper Project

An interactive travel guide to Cornwall has been produced thanks to research carried out by EPSRC-funded scientists at the University of Surrey. It’s part of the Next Generation Paper project, which aims to give readers the ability to interact with content while reading books, magazines or documents, with electronics or image recognition software embedded within the paper to enable it to trigger digital content – such as video clips and audio tracks - on mobile phones or tablets.

Youth Juries and Online Fairness

Teams of EPSRC-funded researchers at the Universities of Nottingham, Oxford and Edinburgh have been working with ‘youth juries’ to highlight concerns over online fairness and whether algorithms are ever neutral, trustworthy and fair. Personalised algorithms are increasingly used in search engine results, news feeds and product recommendations and participants told researchers that they felt they were ‘controlled’ by them.

The aim of the project was to understand people’s concerns and perspectives of online fairness and provide policy recommendations and ethical guidelines.

Hub of all Things

A revolutionary web browser was developed by EPSRC-funded researchers at the University of Warwick that lets people lead smarter lives. The ground-breaking hyperdata web browser, known as the HAT (Hub-of-all-Things), makes it simpler for people to access and use online data about themselves, giving them the ability to browse their very own private and secure ‘personal database’ so that people’s internet data benefits them and not just the businesses and organisations that harvest it.

The HAT collates people’s personal data held on the internet, such as on social media sites, calendars and their own smartphones, (and potentially shopping, financial and other personal data) and allows them to control, combine and share it in whatever way they wish.

Reference: PN 14-19

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