“People are racing against the machine, and many of them are losing that race…Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine.”
Libraries are busy making lots of metadata and data networks. But who are we making this for anyway? Answer: The Machines
I spent the last week catching up on what the TED Conference has to say on robots, artificial intelligence and what these portend for the future of humans…all with an eye on the impact on my own profession: librarians.
A digest of the various talks would go as follows:
- Machine learning and AI capabilities are advancing at an exponential rate, just as forecast
- Robots are getting smarter and more ubiquitous by the year (Roomba, Siri, Google self-driving cars, drone strikes)
Machines are replacing humans at an increasing rate and impacting unemployment rates
The experts are personally torn on the rise of the machines, noting that there are huge benefits to society, but that we are facing a future where almost every job will be at risk of being taken by a machine. Jeremy Howard used words like “wonderful” and “terrifying” in his talk about how quickly machines are getting smarter (quicker than you think!). Erik Brynjolfsson (quoted above) shared a mixed optimism about the prospects this robotification holds for us, saying that a major retooling of the workforce and even the way society shares wealth is inevitable.
Personally, I’m thinking this is going to be more disruptive than the Industrial Revolution, which stirred up some serious feelings as you may recall: Unionization, Urbanization, Anarchism, Bolshevikism…but also some nice stuff (once we got through the riots, revolutions and Pinkertons): like the majority of the world not having to shovel animal manure and live in sod houses on the prairie. But what a ride!
This got me thinking about the end game the speakers were loosely describing and how it relates to libraries. In their estimation, we will see many, many jobs disappear in our lifetimes, including lots of knowledge worker jobs. Brynjolfsson says the way we need to react is to integrate new human roles into the work of the machines. For example, having AI partners that act as consultants to human workers. In this scenario (already happening in healthcare with IBM Watson), machines scour huge datasets and then give their advice/prognosis to a human, who still gets to make the final call. That might work for some jobs, but I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that being a little redundant at some point, especially when you’re talking about machines that may even be smarter than their human partner.
But still, let’s take the typical public-facing librarian, already under threat by the likes of an ever-improving Google. As I discussed briefly in Rise of the Machines, services like Google, IBM Watson, Siri and the like are only getting better and will likely, and possibly very soon, put the reference aspect of librarianship out of business altogether. In fact, because these automated information services exist on mobile/online environments with no library required, they will likely exacerbate the library relevance issue, at least as far as traditional library models are concerned.
Of course, we’re quickly re-inventing ourselves (read how in my post Tomorrow’s Tool Library on Steroids), but one thing is clear, the library as the community’s warehouse and service center for information will be replaced by machines. In fact, a more likely model would be one where libraries pool community resources to provide access to cutting-edge AI services with access to expensive data resources, if proprietary data even exists in the future (a big if, IMO).
What is ironic, is that technical service librarians are actually laying the groundwork for this transformation of the library profession. Every time technical service librarians work out a new metadata schema, mark up digital content with micro-data, write a line of RDF, enhance SEO of their collections or connect a record to linked data, they are really setting the stage for machines to not only index knowledge, but understand its semantic and ontological relationships. That is, they’re building the infrastructure for the robot-infused future. Funny that.
As Brynjolfsson suggests, we will have to create new roles where we work side-by-side with the machines, if we are to stay employed.
On this point, I’d add that we very well could see that human creativity still trumps machine logic. It might be that this particular aspect of humanity doesn’t translate into code all that well. So maybe the robots will be a great liberation and we all get to be artists and designers!
Or maybe we’ll all lose our jobs, unite in anguish with the rest of the unemployed 99% and decide it’s time the other 1% share the wealth so we can all, live off the work of our robots, bliss-out in virtual reality and plan our next vacations to Mars.
Or, as Ray Kurzweil would say, we’ll just merge with the machines and trump the whole question of unemployment, let alone mortality.
Or we could just outlaw AI altogether and hold back the tide permanently, like they did in Dune. Somehow that doesn’t seem likely…and the machines probably won’t allow it. LOL
Anyway, food for thought. As Yoda said: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”
Meanwhile, speaking of movies…
If this subject intrigues you, Hollywood is also jumping into this intellectual meme, pushing out several robot and AI films over the last couple years. If you’re interested, here’s my list of the ones I’ve watched, ordered by my rating (good to less good).
- Her: Wow! Spike Jonze gives his quirky, moody, emotion-driven interpretation of the AI question. Thought provoking and compelling in every regard.
- Black Mirror, S02E01 – Be Right Back: Creepy to the max and coming to a bedroom near you soon!
- Automata: Bleak but interesting. Be sure NOT to read the expository intro text at the beginning. I kept thinking this was unnecessary to the film and ruined the mystery of the story. But still pretty good.
- Transcendence: A play on Ray Kurzwell’s singularity concept, but done with explosions and Hollywood formulas.
- The Machine: You can skip it.
Two more are on my must watch list: Chappie and Ex Machina, both of which look like they’ll be quality films that explore human-robot relations. They may be machines, but I love when we dress them up with emotions…I guess that’s what you should expect from a human being. 🙂