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The Search Is On: Internet Research Made Simple

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Peter West

The Internet, the global network of computer networks, resembles nothing so much as a Middle Eastern bazaar where priceless pearls of information can often be found on the same shelf as paste imitations. If only the wide-eyed shopper knew the tricks of the trade.

New and developing software tools are emerging to help inexperienced users--including teachers and students--navigate through the billions of bits of data stored in computers from Kansas City to Karachi. But even so, it's difficult for casual users of the worldwide network to sort out the information they want and bring it safely home.

Enter Mark Rorvig, the head of a team of computer scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.

"What every professional needs," Rorvig argues, "is somebody to do your grunt work for you." And he's set out to prove it.

In partnership with the Texas Education Agency, Rorvig and a team of elementary and middle school teachers have created a software program they call a "knowledge robot" to conduct "intelligent searches" of the Internet.

Although still in its earliest stages of development, the Internet Library Information Assembly Database, or ILIAD Project, is designed to produce a sorting mechanism that will traverse the Internet and seek out information that matches user-programmed requests. In education, for example, the program classifies specific search requests using the Dewey decimal system and then searches electronic repositories for information that seems to fulfill the user's needs.

Many technical challenges lie ahead for the project. But, if successful, ILIAD could greatly reduce the time spent on Internet searches, making the network a much more productive educational resource. "We feel like we have a chance to make a tremendous impact on the teaching profession," Rorvig says. "Our goal is to arrive at a system that would allow a teacher to keep roughly 80 percent of what the robot retrieves."

The ILIAD Project is a direct offshoot of the federal High Performance Computing and Communications Act, which requires agencies such as NASA to search for ways to apply their research to support K-12 education.

"We think it's possible to develop a lot of really great curriculum aids, but we're not teachers, so we can't do that," Rorvig says. "But what we can do is develop 'intelligent agents."'

"There's another dimension to this," he adds. "Schools right now are being wired up to take advantage of telecommunications, and they're doing this on faith." If ILIAD works, then money spent to connect schools to the Internet and other advanced computer networks could produce a much bigger bang for the buck.

Rorvig's also excited about the chance to test ILIAD on the Texas Education Network, a statewide system operated jointly by the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas system. "If we produce something usable," he says, "then it can spread across the state of Texas."

And although ILIAD's creators currently have teachers' needs in mind, they could adapt the technology to boost productivity in a host of other fields, including applications within the space program. Aerospace engineers, for example, query from one to three databases daily. ILIAD, if properly programmed, could help streamline such searches, as well as spawn a host of other valuable spin-offs.

"A lot of things that we do impact the space program in favorable ways internally," Rorvig says. "This is a chance to do something for thousands and thousands of people, and we're very anxious to succeed."

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