In the next subsection, we provide an overview of the technical challenges confronting the NII. Then, we outline specific research areas with potentially large payback. Sections 2 and 3 elaborate each of these points and link the challenges to the research areas.
1.1 Technical Challenges
Numerous obstacles block the development of both the NII and National Challenge applications in education, health care, advanced manufacturing, and electronic commerce. In this report, we focus on three of the most difficult challenges: ease of use, flexible infrastructure, and powerful development tools. We discuss these challenges briefly here; in Section 2 we elaborate and explain the potential role of intelligent software systems in meeting these challenges.
1.1.1Ease of Use
Current computer systems are complex and difficult to use even for experts. The NII will be orders of magnitude more complex than the Internet, and could easily become a labyrinth of databases and services. For the NII to be accessible to all citizens, dramatic improvements must be made in the design of user interfaces (This point is elaborated in Subsection 2.1).
Today’s interfaces require that users memorize cryptic commands, menu selection sequences, and button clicks; people are forced to adapt to the machine. In contrast, NII interfaces will need to be intelligent, adjusting automatically to a person’s skills and pattern of usage. An intelligent interface to NII resources could help people find and do what they want, when they want, in a manner that is natural to them, and without their having to know or specify irrelevant details of NII structure.
A natural metaphor for such an interface is a software agent, an intelligent agent (i.e., an entity capable of autonomous goal-oriented behavior in some environment, often in the service of larger-scale goals external to itself) that acts as a personal assistant to the user. Users will want to communicate with their agents in familiar and flexible ways--by speaking English, drawing diagrams, or providing concrete examples. Agents should be goal oriented, allowing users to state what they want accomplished, then automatically determining how and when to achieve the goal. These agents should understand an expressive range of commands so that users can form questions or requests without having to learn--or be limited by--an artificial query language. They should be cooperative, collaborating with the user to refine incorrect or incomplete requests. Furthermore, personal software agents should have the ability to be customized, automatically adapting to different users by following direct requests from users and learning from experience with them.
1.1.2 Flexible Infrastructure
Just as the nation’s highway system would be an unnavigable maze without such services as maps, gas stations, and signposts, the NII will be unusable without a flexible system of support services. Because the majority of transactions will be interactions between two autonomous programs, an NII equivalent of maps and signposts must be designed to provide guidance to software agents as well as people. Context sensitivity is important: by accounting for a user’s (or software agent’s) objectives, NII services can provide guidance more like a chauffeur or a tour guide than a map.
Three factors conspire to confound the task of developing flexible NII support services: scale, scope, and heterogeneity. Together, the NII’s information repositories will hold information on a truly vast scale. The scope too will be vast: the stored information will range across all subjects. In addition, data will be represented in an incredible variety of forms, including various human languages, digital and video images, audio, geometric computer-aided design (CAD) models, mathematical equations, and database relations.
A foundational suite of high-level information infrastructure services (Subsection 2.2) could provide significant assistance to NII applications, enabling them to handle the variability in these three dimensions and ensure full access to these data in a manner that supports interoperability. We envision at least three types of infrastructure services that could provide critical support for common problems: data and knowledge management services, integration and translation services, and knowledge discovery services.
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