In this interview we welcome a new lab team and an old friend of Web Science 

Ian: Steffen, thanks for joining us – it seems a little unusual to welcome you as a new Lab Director when you ran one of our other Labs at Koblenz for many years but your team are new so a very warm welcome to both you and your team.

Steffen: Many thanks – I’m really excited about the new Lab and re-joining the WSTNet.

Ian : How does the work at Stuttgart compare to Koblenz?

Steffen: I think the biggest difference is probably scale – there are several thousand researchers here in Stuttgart so the opportunities to engage in bigger projects across a wider area and multiple disciplines is very exciting.

Ian: What are the broad themes for your group and what are working on right now?

Steffen: Our broad theme is AI and Machine Learning within the Cyber Valley initiative of the Universities of Stuttgart and Tübingen and the Max-Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems. Whilst this sounds highly technically focussed we have a strong digital humanities/interdisciplinary (i.e., Web Science) element to our research. I am co-director of the Interchange Forum for Reflecting on Intelligent Systems (IRIS) which considers heterogeneous intelligent systems of people, machines, tools etc and is looking at diverse perspectives such as ethical and societal challenges, the risks and benefits of automated decision-making, bias and the transparency/fairness of automated decisions and responsible human-computer interactions. What makes this type of research possible is that it encompasses researchers across the whole university of Stuttgart and we have more than 30 professors and their teams at Stuttgart engaged in this particular collaboration.

Ian: It sounds like you are pretty convinced by the opportunities that come with inter-organisational and inter-disciplinary collaboration?

Steffen: We saw those opportunities at Koblenz as part of WSTNet: we hosted the 3rd annual Web Science conference in 2011 and also ran and took part in a number of Web Science Summer School events around the world taught by some world-class speakers with students from Singapore, US, Korea, UK and other labs which is a tremendous opportunity for the students. In 2015 I joined Southampton as a Professor in the Web Science Institute and had access to colleagues in Law and the Social Sciences which really transformed the type of research we could do. I later acted as chairman for WSTNet and then joined the WSTNet board.

Ian: Now you are on the board of Trustees for the WST has your perspective changed? Who would you encourage to join the WSTNet?

Steffen: I think the profile of people who are interested in Web Science has changed over the last decade. Traditionally the idea of networks carried a more technical focus on networks of machines but the Web has enabled and highlighted the importance of global interactions between networks of human/machine actors, networks of people/locations, networks of tools/systems, networks of cultures, networks of political and legal system and the list goes on, so the original technical focus has been joined by a vital social science perspective without which it is impossible to understand the complexity of these systems. For example, this week I co-organize a Dagstuhl workshop on “Challenges and Opportunities of Democracy in the Digital Society” with researchers from political science, communication studies, sociology, law and computer science.

There are several ”heavy-hitters” in the current WSTNet network, some who helped define and develop the whole Web Science field and we’ve certainly seen those types of organisation with a solid track record in Web Science and (related approaches) apply and join but as the influence of the Web and the effects of network/machine interaction at scale continues to increase I would also think that groups with strong research credentials in their own (non-technical) disciplines may want to *develop* new digital skills and fold socio-technical, Web Science approaches, into their research arsenal could consider WSTNet a route into Web Science. Its a huge potential resource of technical, cultural and interdisciplinary experience.

As the number of machines and intelligent agents continues to grow (and I think we are only at the very beginning of vast growth) we will see the impact of machines and intelligent agents on every aspect of society and so the need to understand, predict and effectively steward that impact has never been more important. Even for those groups who don’t use the term Web Science we will see the Web Science approach as we have defined and developed it reflected everywhere.

Ian: Steffen – thanks for taking the time to chat with me and once again welcome back to network.