Foresight Institute has a special interest in systems to improve the evolution
of knowledge and to enhance the quality of discussion and decisions on complex
issues. Currently there is no good way to carry out such discussions: paper
is too slow and inconvenient, while Internet discussions--whether they be
in the form of newsgroups, static web pages, or chat sessions--are too unstructured.
Our Web Enhancement Project aims at adding features to the World Wide Web
needed to better carry out critical discussion. These features have been
described in the essay "Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge"
available on the web (www.asiapac.com/Hypertext/HypertextPublishingKED.html)
and on paper from the Foresight office.
Hyper-G has true hypertext publishing features
We had originally thought that this would require Foresight to produce the
needed software, but fortunately this has become unnecessary by the introduction
of Hyper-G by an international team (originating,
as did the web itself, in Europe). Hyper-G, known as HyperWave in its commercial
version, has almost all of the features on our wish list for hypertext publishing,
because it was based on the early concepts of hypertext from Ted Nelson,
and also explicitly designed for structured discussion:
Bidirectional links: links that work in both directions between
linked documents. On today's web, links work in one direction only.
Extrinsic links: links that can be made visible without the
document author's permission. Needed for critical discussion.
Link typing and sorting (filtering): the ability to label
a link with a keyword describing its type (e.g., criticism or example) and
sort for only those links to be displayed. Needed when a document has many
extrinsic links. Annotations are an explicit link type already
coded into Hyper-G.
Fine-grained links: as on the web, links can be made to only
part of a document, even one word or one letter. In Hyper-G, up to six links
Links in non-ASCII documents: links can be made and viewed
in PostScript, gif, jpeg, tiff, video, VRML, and soon audio and PDF (Acrobat)
documents. This is possible because unlike conventional HTML documents,
which encode links within the document itself, Hyper-G supports the ability
to maintain a list of links in a database, which can be merged into the
document at display time. Links are treated as objects in their own right,
with their own attributes and permissions ("rights").
Fine-grained access control: for each document, one can specify
who can see the document, who can see each link, who can edit the document
itself, and who can edit the links.
Advanced structuring facilities for documents, including
graphical and even 3D visualization of the structure
Sophisticated search abilities, including the ability to
search Postscript document contents (i.e., special Hyper-G tools can "read"
PostScript document contents and make a full text index of them). A search
engine is built into the server, which cooperates with a more lightweight
search ability on the Hyper-G client.
Compatibility with the existing web: Hyper-G documents can
be viewed using standard web browsers.
Hyper-G client software is available for UNIX, Windows NT, Windows 95, and
is in preparation for the Macintosh. A line-oriented terminal version of
the client is also available. However, the UNIX client is the most advanced,
and can be run under the operating system Linux
on Wintel machines, as Foresight plans to do.
Partly because they include commerically-useful features such as subscriptions
and licensing, Hyper-G or Hyper-G spinoffs are already in use at publishing
companies such as Springer, Academic Press, Wiley, and Oxford University
Press. It is also used extensively by the European Space Agency.
Foresight can experiment with Hyper-G without betting on its long-term success
as a standard. The goal is to use the basic capabilities of second-generation
hypertext publishing systems by building information structures with real
content. This content could later be transferred to another system that
provides the same basic capabilities. Foresight hopes to show the usefulness
of the advanced hypertext publishing features listed above: we may be instrumental
in spreading these back into the World Wide Web as a whole. Thus, our efforts
don't depend on Hyper-G and HyperWave commercial success, but on how well
we demonstrate the feature set.
Computer security debate
Our first experimental debate will be in the field of computer security,
specifically language and operating system security: how can we maximize
cooperation without vulnerability? We will start by examining Java-style
languages. This topic has several advantages for an initial debate:
It is important to the safe and widespread deployment of nanotechnology,
i.e. it is critical to our shared future.
It is already of great current interest for commercial reasons.
It will be debated by those familiar with computer technology: early
adopters who already use the web and may be willing to install the Hyper-G
client software so they can participate actively in the debate.
It is complex enough to demonstrate the usefulness of our target feature
set for debating complex issues.
It is relatively theorem-like: propositions can be clearly stated--"Given
these assumptions, this security violation is impossible"--which can
then be tested and possibly disproved either theoretically or experimentally.
Thus, while the topic is complex, it is not as messy as human systems. Our
first debate should be one in which actual progress is possible.
The funds for Foresight's Hyper-G server were raised at this
year's Senior Associates Gathering. This machine has now arrived and
is being configured by Russell Whitaker,
technical leader of the project. We will be putting in a skeleton argumentation
structure, and then inviting specific security experts to join the debate
one by one. The reason for this controlled build-up of participants is that
we expect to encounter glitches in the process which will have to be solved
using social rules, rather than the procedures we can enforce using the
software. We will also have to evolve filtering procedures.
Once it's clear that the debate software is working well, and we are being
successful at adding needed social rules, we will open up access to the
debate first to Senior Associates, later
to Foresight members and some relevant professional groups, and eventually
to the general public.
This computer security debate is only the first of many Foresight plans
to conduct on advanced technologies of public policy importance. We hope
that the debate procedures we evolve can be of use to those debating other
topics as well-including "messy" human issues.
Hyper-G information sources
Those interested in assisting the project at this stage can start to familiarize
themselves with the software by reading the book HyperWave: The Next-Generation
Web Solution (by Hermann Maurer, Addison Wesley, 1996; available
free online at http://www.hyperwave.de/hw_book)
and by installing the client software available free online (ftp://ftp.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Hyper-G
In addition, funds are needed immediately to pay for (1) Foresight's
client machine, about $3900; (2) people's time in organizing the project,
tech support to targeted experts, and uploading reference documents; (3)
$500 membership fee for Foresight to join the Hyper-G Consortium, and thereby
become eligible for R&D grants from the Consortium; and eventually (4)
our own connection to the Internet when we outgrow our initial shared T1
In the longer term, we invite all Foresight members--and eventually all
web users-- to join us in debate online. We believe that full hypertext
publishing capabilities are a breakthrough equal in importance to the invention
of the library. No other tool is sufficient to deal with the complex
problems to be solved in successfully implementing nanotechnology and the
other advanced technologies now on the horizon.
For project updates, visit our web site www.foresight.org. Donations may
be discussed with Chris Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org
or tel 415-917-1122, or mailed to Foresight Institute, PO Box 61058, Palo
Alto, CA 94306 USA, and are tax-deductible in the U.S.
Special thanks to Russell Whitaker for technical leadership; those who
donated funds for the server machine: Hughgie Barron, Ken Blakeslee, Steve
Burgess, Warren Freeman, Dan Fylstra, Jim Lewis, David Lindbergh, Joy Martin,
Chris Portman, Gary Pullar, Dick Smith, and J. Tory.