Google VP delivers Dean's Lecture

Photo of Dr. GuhaDr. Ramanathan V. Guha, vice president of research at Google, presented the talk “Ideas that Shaped the Web,” Sept. 17 as part of the Dwight Look College of Engineering’s Dean’s Lecture Series.

Guha, the man behind both the knowledge-graph and schema.org at Google, joined Google in 2005 and is currently a Google Fellow. While at Google he has been responsible for Google Custom Search and a number of enhancements to Adwords. He is also one of the founds of Schema.org.

Guha’s presentation included a glimpse into the creation of the World Wide Web and how design principles affected the Web’s evolution.

Guha went through a brief timeline from the early 1990s when many universities had the most influence in the Web because they had adequate funding. During this time, the private sector was also competing for control. One of the main themes throughout the presentation was the need for constant collaboration between many people to create success.

“The web is truly, truly extraordinary and it didn’t happen by accident,” Guha said. “There’s something magical about the Internet because it seems to keep evolving.”

Guha noted that the first version of the web was “unusable” because it had very few features. There were no images, scripting, tables or formatting at this time.

Corporate challengers entered the scene once the Web grew. In 1993, AOL was the leader, which soon shifted to the MSN network. Guha said that MSN took the Web to an entirely new level where it produced images, security, identity and even online shops.

Still, at this point Web users consisted of mostly students, universities, researchers and enthusiasts. He mentioned that one of the most popular sites in 1994 was a “Coffee Cam,” which was simply a picture of a coffee pot at Bristol University that was updated every 15 minutes. People became so enthusiastic about this page that they obtained a browser, got an Internet connection and then began creating their own webpages. Guha told this story to express how rapidly the Web grew during this time because there was no barrier to entry.

Guha concluded his presentation by addressing Massive Open Online Courses, commonly known as “MOOCS.”

“Today’s educational institutions are institutions of exclusion. We define ourselves in terms of how few people we admit,” Guha said.

He said this shouldn’t be the case. Instead, he believes that a person should be able to take a course from an institution without requiring admission. He also believes that with the resources available, a university should be able to reach 100 million students.

Guha suggested that one day a student will have the ability to mix and match teachers from different institutions. “I suspect that teachers will become rock stars,” he said.  Rather than having hundreds of sections of the same class, a student  could choose from just a handful of the best teachers in that subject, despite their physical location.

He also talked about the nature of the current classroom. With the technology available now and as it evolves further, a student does not need to be in the classroom to attend a lecture. Rather, the lecture can be on viewed on the student’s time and the classroom time can be utilized for other activities.

 “We don’t even know what we don’t know,” Guha said. He reiterated that collaboration is needed for certain design principles to have an impact and encouraged the audience to do their part in helping. “When you are designing, don’t think of yourself as creating the artifact, you are simply creating an ecosystem where other people can come and design the artifact as it’s meant to be.”

Prior to joining Google, Guha was a principal scientist at Apple, and a principal engineering at Netscape, where he created the first version of RSS. He cofounded Epinions, and has been a researcher at IBM Almanden Research Center.

Guha graduate with a B.Tech (mechanical engineering) from Indian Institute of Technology Madras, M.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University under John McCarthy.