Rise of the Machines

As I write, the Roomba is cleaning my house. Googlebots are driving cars on California roads. Siri is learning what you want.

And, to the dread of many reference librarians, Watson is beating the pants off Jeopardy Champions in an opening AI move that will surely impact the library in the near future.

Already, robot shelvers are in place in many libraries, such as Santa Clara University’s Library. And if you saw the recent executive summary of Library Journal’s Patron Profiles, you saw that 76% of students reported turning to Google first when initiating their research. Compare that to just 24% that opted for the library.

This isn’t news, really, but when I heard economist Paul Krugman connecting the dots of automation, nagging unemployment, innovation and worker productivity and identifying it as a challenge to society, I had to agree with his thesis: robots are replacing people at an ever-increasing rate…and in parts of the economy we once considered safe.

Like I said in my previous post, sometimes the future sneaks up on you. But even if robotification is inevitable, we must ask ourselves, what are the human qualities that make us a value to other people?

Some might say that it’s about the in-person assistance that we can bring to our libraries: true. They might emphasize the smiles, encouraging words and subtle forms of non-verbal communication machines are pretty lousy with so far (until the David 8 release at least).

But we have to be very careful about convincing ourselves that retreating to our ramparts of physicality and empathy will serve us for very long. As the Library Journal survey illustrates, the cold, white Googlean box is often a superior tool than a library website…and quite possibly more approachable than our staff.

No, to be effective and valuable, we have to embrace the shifting technological realm and make it our own…and humanize it, improve it, augment it.

Until David 8, that is…

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