A Candid Conversation with Lynn Stein

A candid conversation with Lynn Stein about developing the semantic web, being one of Olin’s founding faculty members, and what it means to work with college students.

Olin’s professor of computer and cognitive science, Lynn Stein teaches Human Factors in Interface Design (HFID), Fundamentals of Computer Science (FOCS), and Artificial Intelligence (AI), among other classes. She has acclaim as a researcher, teacher, leader, and women’s advocate, and was one of Olin’s founding faculty members.


Throughout her academic career, Stein has intermixed computer science with a personal interest in epistemological questioning, leading her to fascinating work on existence and interconnection. A full-wall bookshelf dominates her uncluttered office, backdrop to our conversation.

FRANKLY: Can you tell me what the semantic web is, and your involvement with it?

STEIN: The World Wide Web is about ways that people can communicate with other people. The semantic web is essentially the markup, the encoding of that information in a format that’s much easier for computers to read and reason about.

The semantic web project is actually an interesting story for me: when I was in graduate school, I did my doctoral work on commonsense reasoning.

When I went to work at MIT, I stopped doing that work and was doing some very different work in human-computer interaction [HCI]. I thought I had completely left the knowledge representation community behind.

I wound up getting involved through the HCI work in a project with some folks from the World Wide Web consortium. That was around the time when Tim Berners-Lee was really pushing his concept of the semantic web, which had on some level always been a piece of his vision for the web. He and my HCI collaborator and I and a couple of other people created this project at MIT that was part of the DARPA consortium to develop the semantic web.

I walked into the very first organizing meeting that DARPA held, and basically my doctoral dissertation committee was sitting there. We picked up the conversation about knowledge representation and reasoning without missing a beat.

At the time, I was one of the few people in the world who could speak to both the knowledge representation people and to the web people. Over the first year or two of meetings—which took place just before and right around the founding of Olin—part of my role was to help them learn to speak each other’s languages. I will not forget sitting on the floor of Edison House, writing documentation for the language called DAML-O which was a precursor to OWL [one of the semantic web languages].

FRANKLY: What’s the overall purpose of it?

STEIN: It’s generally to allow computer-assisted reasoning. For example, there are services now that will go out and if you want to find a particular camera, they’ll figure out what the cheapest place you can buy this camera from is.

A lot of those things have to do what’s called “screen scraping.” They’re looking at the human-readable web and turning it into something that the computer can manipulate.

But for some things, people are willing to put up the computer-readable information. And actually at this point, photographs, for example, have a lot of metadata. Metadata is essentially part of the semantic web. The standard formats for digital photographs now encode a lot of information beyond the picture.

Then you say, “Well, what can you do with that metadata?” There are lots of things you can do. Look at Facebook graph search. Everything that the computer-aided web stuff is doing, the semantic web was about enabling those technologies.

FRANKLY: You work on innovation in education, correct?

STEIN: I think that’s a role I’ve taken on more and more since I’ve been here. That’s part of why Olin was started. When I came back from sabbatical in 2008, there was a real need for some more conscious attention to that part of Olin’s mission. I did it because it needed to be done.

I’ve invested a lot of energy in it, but my goal is that it should really be a project that Olin owns. It’s not something I intend to do forever. But I am really interested in it. I’m really interested in how change happens.

I think I have developed something of an expertise in academic cultures and academic change processes. I don’t mean that from a scholarly perspective, but from a practical perspective: I think it’s something that we as a team have developed at Olin.

We’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of different institutions to really do some interesting projects. It’s very exciting and I think in a lot of ways it’s made much more of a difference than making some incremental development in some very detailed field of cognitive robotics. It’s the thing that I’ve done that’s made the most difference in the most people’s lives.

FRANKLY: Can you tell me about your undergraduate intention to major in “life”?

STEIN: I had some very, very specific idea. I don’t think I can reconstruct what it was, though somewhere there must be some paperwork I produced, because I actually did apply for a special concentration.

I think it had something to do with the nature of stories, but I’m not really sure I can coherently construct what it was. Anyway, I went to the special concentrations office, and I talked to the person who was in charge of it, and made my case, and she said, “Why don’t you try computer science?”

I was the first year in which one could graduate with a major in computer science at Harvard. It was either English, but I wouldn’t have been able to take grad courses in computer science; or computer science, and I would be able to take grad courses in English.

I wound up doing a lot of work in psychology and linguistics and philosophy, along with the computer science major, and also work in literature and mythology. In retrospect I should have been a folk and myth major—Harvard has a major called folklore and mythology.

I think the thing that I am more than anything else is an applied philosopher. I’m interested in how people work; in some ideas around theology and religion; in how systems work; in how technology works. I see those all as interconnected questions. I see those as not unrelated to stories, and how stories make meaning.

FRANKLY: What was it like to be one of the first faculty members at Olin?

STEIN: It was probably crazy in all the ways that any startup is crazy.

A huge amount of it was creating culture and learning to work together; figuring out that although there was a completely blank slate, there was only one of it, so we all had to write approximately the same thing. It was learning to speak each other’s languages and doing all of the things that don’t seem like productive work: they seem like writing an awful lot of reports, but in fact are the early stages of working through ideas.

And then we had the second year of faculty come in and tell us what we were doing wrong and whip it all into shape and make it good.

It was interesting, because every time new people joined, there was sort of an arc of transition into the community where people would come in and think everything was wonderful, and then they would hit a wall. They would realize things weren’t quite as open as they’d thought and a whole lot of things might actually be impossible. They would get depressed. And then they would realize that there was possibility afterward.

After we were going through it for about the third time, some of us were saying, “Ok, move on already. We’re past that,” but then I think we kind of came to appreciate that each person had to come to these realizations him or herself. And our colleagues had to own it and had to invent it for themselves as much as we’d had to invent it.

It was actually kind of sad when people started joining the faculty and just accepting what was here. Because it marked the end of that complete era of invention.

FRANKLY: When would you say that was?

STEIN: I think it was a more gradual transition, but certainly by the time I came back from my sabbatical – which was 2008 – people were no longer entering an institution that didn’t exist.

I don’t know that sad is the word, but it was a little bit bittersweet.

FRANKLY: Do you also see that change in students?

STEIN: I see it less in students. I see a bigger difference between the way you walk in and the way you walk out. You change so much while you’re here, and I guess I see that difference more than I see the difference between you and someone a few classes ahead of you or a few classes behind you.

It’s such a gift to be able to work with people at this time in your lives. It’s so important for you, and—it sounds trite, but it’s incredibly rewarding for me to be a part of people’s lives at the point where they’re figuring out who they are and establishing themselves a little bit, independently of where they come from, and launching themselves into where they’re going to.

That’s a really special thing. And you get to do it once, but I get to do it over and over and over again. It keeps me connected to that moment in time.

FRANKLY: Did you always intend to be an educator?

STEIN: I think I started teaching when I was about six. So yes, I think I always did think that I was going to teach.

When I was in grad school, I knew I wanted a job where I could both teach and do research. I remember briefly thinking that if I could only do one, it would be research, and I was wrong about that. It would have been a tragedy to have given up teaching.

When I say teaching, I do a little bit mean standing up in front of a group of people. My students, but more my children, would tell you that I am more than capable of lecturing. But what I actually really like most about teaching is not the thing that happens in a classroom. What I really like most about teaching is mentoring and working with students. Sometimes you can do that in a classroom, but it’s really the less formal connecting and helping people figure out their lives.

When I look back on my life, I have stories of people whose lives I’ve made a difference in. And I’m not someone who’s going to cure AIDS—I’m not going to do big, dramatic, important things. But I know that there are lives I’ve touched. That’s why I do what I do.