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04/11/94

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New Stanford center is key player in prototype electronic network

STANFORD -- Who sells Brand X computers for the lowest price in the Bay Area?

That is an example of the kind of question that subscribers will be able to ask and get instantaneous answers to within three years on the nation's evolving information superhighway.

Developing such "advanced query" capabilities for CommerceNet, the newly announced communications network that is being established to link businesses electronically in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, is one of the tasks of the Stanford Center for Information Technology (CIT).

CIT is a recently formed research center at Stanford University that brings together researchers from a number of different disciplines on campus who are developing advanced software tools for the national information infrastructure.

Headed by computer science professors Michael R. Genesereth, Hector Garcia-Molina and Jeffrey D. Ullman, the new organization includes a core of full-time employees, together with faculty and students from Stanford, and professionals from affiliated organizations in industry, government and academia.

The focus of the center's activity is the development of advanced information technology - computer technology appropriate to the storage, communication, manipulation and use of information in digital form. In a departure from the tradition of many academic organizations, the work at CIT is designed to integrate basic research on the principles underlying information technology, development of practical technologies, and demonstrations to illustrate and assess their strengths and limitations. Among the specific research areas being pursued at the center are multimedia technology, integration technology, information capture and human-computer interaction.

In addition to its participation in CommerceNet, CIT has a major proposal to establish an "Electronic University" under review by the National Science Foundation. If it receives funding, the project will put Stanford at the forefront of efforts to determine how new digital telecommunications technologies can best be utilized in higher education. CIT envisions such a system as providing timely access to varied educational resources, including digital libraries, videotaped lectures, databases and knowledge bases, interactive textbooks, and training programs. Instead of course-based packaging, the center will test the value of providing educational materials in smaller pieces, available at the times and places most convenient for the student.

The development of a computerized patient record system that crosses the current boundaries between health care providers is another major CIT project. The system will use both wired and wireless communication to provide links among physicians, nurses, administrators, insurers, laboratory technicians and other diverse information sources. Online records and decision-support tools will be designed to help providers give more effective and efficient care.

Background on CommerceNet

First there was e-mail. Now there is e-commerce.

On Tuesday, April 12, the first large-scale U.S. trial of the use of computer networking for business transactions was formally launched. The pilot program, called CommerceNet, is operated by the CommerceNet consortium, a nonprofit corporation funded by a $6 million, three-year grant from the federal Technology Reinvestment Project, with matching funds from the State of California and member companies.

The consortium consists of a core development team - Stanford's Center for Information Technology; the Enterprise Information Technologies (EIT), a private company founded by Stanford consulting professor Jay M. Tenenbaum; and WestREN, a nonprofit organization that supplies Internet services to Northern California - sponsoring organizations and industry participants. Sponsoring organizations include Smart Valley Inc., Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network and the California Office of Strategic Technology. The project has 27 industrial participants, including Apple Computer Inc., Bank of America, Digital Equipment Corp., Dun & Bradstreet Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. Inc., National Semiconductor, Pacific Bell, Visa International and Xerox Corp.

CommerceNet is a system that uses the existing Internet to link Silicon Valley's integrated circuit and component manufacturers, job shops, distributors and computer systems manufacturers. The first step will allow manufacturers and distributors to make their product literature and catalogs available online for engineers to browse. Online ordering, delivery scheduling, part locating and other services will then be added incrementally.

"In a very real sense, CIT represents the future of CommerceNet," said CIT director Michael Genesereth.

CIT researchers will focus on three basic areas: intelligent information retrieval, "software interoperation" technology to allow different types of applications to work together, and computer tools to support collaborative work.

  • On a network there are two basic strategies for finding information efficiently. One approach is to require that the information on all the systems in the network be stored in exactly the same manner. That makes it relatively easy to write retrieval programs. Such a simple approach, however, does not work on a decentralized network on which people use a wide range of hardware and software. Internet is such a decentralized network, and the evolving national information superhighway is likely to operate in a similar fashion. So CIT is working on the second strategy: developing more sophisticated, "artificially intelligent" tools that can search out information, despite variations in location and format, provided some simple rules are followed.
  • Many thousands of software products are available to users today. While most of these programs provide their users with significant value when used in isolation, there is increasing demand for programs that can "interoperate," to exchange information and services with other programs, and thereby solve problems that cannot be solved alone. In the electronics world, for example, it is desirable to link computer-aided design workstations with simulators and parts catalogs. CIT is developing the technology needed to create software capable of interoperating effectively. This includes work on language standards, "software agents" (programs able to process complex information and tasks), and "facilitators" (programs that can help agents find each other and can translate between different communication languages).
  • The goal of CIT's work on concurrent engineering is technology to facilitate the collaboration of human engineers in developing products with the help of networked computer-aided design workstations. The approach is similar to that used in linked spreadsheets - the design decisions of each engineer will be automatically propagated to all interested parties, and service requests will be automatically forwarded to workstations and engineers with the appropriate expertise, thus increasing the efficiency of product design. CommerceNet will provide the opportunity for such concurrent engineering to take place across institutional boundaries.

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