A Laurel Wreath for an AI Expert

February 6, 2003

One of the world's most distinguished universities recently honored one of ISI's newest researchers.

Computer Scientist Jerry R. Hobbs received an honorary degree from the University of Uppsala Jan. 24, only three months after joining the USC School of Engineering's Information Sciences Institute.

The venerable Swedish institution, annual site of the Nobel Prize ceremony, bestowed the title of Doctor of Philosophy honoris causa to recognize Hobbs for his three decades of work in artificial intelligence and computational linguistics.

Hobbs came to ISI in September 2002 from the Artificial Intelligence Center at SRI International in Menlo Park, bringing with him several projects.

One, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is part of the DARPA Agent Markup Language program, known by the acronym DAML, which is developing what is called the "semantic web."

Using the DARPA Agent Markup Language Hobbs is building a beyond-Google search engine that tailors itself to the user's needs, expressed in something closer to ordinary language, ("I want to buy a first edition copy of Gone with the Wind at a store in Beverly Hills this afternoon"), rather than demanding that users guess the right key words.

Hobbs also brought a major project funded by the Advanced Research and Development Agency (ARDA) to develop a knowledge-access system that enters into a dialog with users, guiding their inquiries "much as a good reference librarian would," said Hobbs, "helping you shape your understanding of what you're looking for."

In mid-February, 2003 Hobbs won two new DARPA grants. He received $305,000 for project called AQUAINT, which will create information-seeking dialogs to narrow in on information needs to aid intelligence analysts in developing reports. The program will guide the decomposition of questions into subquestions targeted at various Web and other resources. Another DARPA grant, for $341,138, will fund a new Semantic web project incorporating geographical and spacial information. At SRI, Hobbs worked on FASTUS, a system to automatically extract information deemed relevant using pre-set categories from vast quantities of ordinary language text.

At ISI, he is part of the Intelligent Systems Division, directed by Yigal Arens.

"There are not many people in AI in general and knowledge representation in particular whose names are known to everyone in the field," Arens said. "Jerry is one of them, and we're very lucky he decided to join us here."

"Our natual language group was already one of ISI's greatest strengths," Arens continued. "Jerry's presence will solidify our role as an acknowledged leader in the field."

When not researching ways to help computers and people understand each other more easily, Hobbs travels — to 118 countries so far .

"I have ... climbed the Matterhorn, drove a Land Rover from London to Capetown, got attacked by a thousand people in Egypt, got stuck in quicksand in the interior of Iceland, flew in a Russian cargo plane to Timbuktu, followed orangutans around the Borneo rain forest, narrowly avoided being kidnapped in Yemen, etc.," he wrote recently.

Hobbs went on to write that he was viewing his move to ISI and Los Angeles "as its own sort of exotic adventure."