AI First

Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.

Google Founder’s Letter, April 2016

My Library recently finalized a Vision Document for our virtual library presence. Happily, our vision was aligned with the long-term direction of technology as understood by movers and shakers like Google.

As I’ve written previously, the Library Website will disappear. But this is because the Internet (as we currently understand it) will also disappear.

In its place, a new mode of information retrieval and creation will move us away from the paper-based metaphor of web pages. Information will be more ubiquitous. It will be more free-form, more adaptable, more contextualized, more interactive.

Part of this is already underway. For example, people are becoming a data set. And other apps are learning about you and changing how they work based on who you are. Your personal data set contains location data, patterns in speech and movement around the world, consumer history, keywords particular to your interests, associations based on your social networks, etc.

AI Emerging

All of this information makes it possible for emerging AI systems like Siri and Cortana to better serve you. Soon, it will allow AI to control the flow of information based on your mood and other factors to help you be more productive. And like a good friend that knows you very, very well, AI will even be able to alert you to serendipitous events or inconveniences so that you can navigate life more happily.

People’s expectations are already being set for this kind of experience. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself getting annoyed when your personal assistant just fetches a Wikipedia article when you ask it something. You’re left wanting. What we want is that kernel of gold we asked about. But what we get right now, is something too general to be useful.

But soon, that will all change. Nascent AI will soon be able to provide exactly the piece of information that you really want rather than a generalized web page. This is what Google means when they make statements like “AI First” or “the Web will die.” They’re talking about a world where information is not only presented as article-like web pages, but broken down into actual kernels of information that are both discrete and yet interconnected.

AI First in the Library

Library discussions often focus on building better web pages or navigation menus or providing responsive websites. But the conversation we need to have is about pulling our data out of siloed systems and websites and making it available to all modes like AI, apps and basic data harvesters.

You hear this conversation in bits and pieces. The ongoing linked data project is part of this long-term strategy. So too with next-gen OPACs. But on the ground, in our local strategy meetings, we need to tie every big project we do to this emerging reality where web browsers are increasingly no longer relevant.

We need to think AI First.

Your Job Has Been Robot-sourced


“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.”

– Erik Brynjolfsson, Innovation Researcher

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).

  1. Her: Wow! Spike Jonze gives his quirky, moody, emotion-driven interpretation of the AI question. Thought provoking and compelling in every regard.
  2. Black Mirror, S02E01 – Be Right Back: Creepy to the max and coming to a bedroom near you soon!
  3. 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.
  4. Transcendence: A play on Ray Kurzwell’s singularity concept, but done with explosions and Hollywood formulas.
  5. 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. 🙂

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…

The Library Website Will Disappear

A new year always elicits thoughts about the future, but this month, my library has been considering our next strategic plan, which has focused those thoughts for me on my library and the profession in general.

Since I’m principally charged with managing the online aspects of my library, I come to these kinds of discussions focused on web platforms, online communication and consumer technology trends. One of the biggest trends (you may have noticed) has been the adoption of mobile, touch screen devices like iPhones and tablets. I include even Microsoft’s attempt at reinventing the PC with its Surface Tablet, despite early failures to woo consumers. And given this apparently irresistable move toward mobile, tablet-like computing, I have to ask: what does this ultimately mean for the library’s web properties: our websites, our online instruction guides, our discovery systems and our digital collections?

Palo Alto Venture Capital firm KPCB recently explored this very issue in their 2012 Internet Trends Report. Some major insights from their report include:

  • Mobile traffic is now 13% of all global Internet traffic, up from just 1% in 2009. In some countries, like India, mobile Internet traffic has surpassed desktop traffic.
  • Almost 1/3 of US adults own a tablet or e-reader
  • Together, iOS and Android are 45% of the OS market share, vs. 35% for Windows
  • The install base of Tablets + Smartphones will surpass PCs + Notebooks this year

But one trend that stands out in KPCB’s analysis is that of the Asset-Light generation. A long-form definition can be found via a very Asset-Light resource: But to put it more succinctly, being asset-light means your lifestyle is one less reliant on physical commodities and personal know-how, but instead, relies on cloud and crowd-sourcing just about everything. You don’t carry around notepads, you don’t buy maps, you don’t rely on “experts” for medical advice or which movie to see next. Asset-lighters, meet their needs by streaming, connecting and sharing.

From KPCB’s perspective, this is quite important in terms of where the web is heading. Some notable examples relavent to libraries include: MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Amazon Textbook Rental and of course, good-ole Wikipedia.

So, socially, we’re moving toward a very different economy and radically different means of information distribution, especially when it comes to learning.

Add to this, two major and imminent innovations and you will get a glimpse at just how different the world will be in only 5 years:

  1. Wearable devices, especially eyeware will give people the ability to navigate the Internet by voice command, gesture and all through lenses fixed to their faces. Status: Google Glasses are expected to enter the market in early 2013 and Apple won’t be far behind.
  2. Artificially-intelligent agents will not quite resemble HAL from 2001, but be very capable of understanding your vocal commands and then ferreting quite reliable answers to your questions or carrying out mundane tasks, like creating appointments or sending messages for you. Status: Did you see IBM Watson slaughter Jeopardy’s world champions or used SIRI on your iPhone?

So, the way we gather information and where we go to get it is already changing. And the interfaces are already being revolutionized and that pace will accelerate dramatically over the next 5 years as voice and sight overtake the the very impractical and immobile keyboard…even the touchscreen may be reduced to the point where iPads seem like a whimsical dead-end much like 8 track or Beta tapes.

All of these changes will have an immediate effect on the core of our current Internet paradigm: the Web Page.

Text and links with a smattering of images have been the key content types of of web pages since Tim Berners Lee first formulated the WWW. Mobile devices have changed all that. Not only do they steer away from typical web interfaces in favor of “apps,” they actually de-link parts of the web from each other. The result, in most cases is a much more curated and manageable Internet.

And this is important for libraries, whose pages are almost hard-wired around interconnecting pages together in rather daunting tangles of hyperlinks, portals and gateways. Unfortunately, this paradigm is increasingly less relevant to today’s devices and today’s Asset-lighters, who expect a web page to cut through the clutter and get them the answer. In fact, they want an app to do the heavy-lifting for them.

And add to this, semi-intelligent software agents and a re-conceived commercial Internet based around voice and sight and you can see how much work libraries have ahead of them.

The users 5 years from now that enter our libraries’ virtual spaces, will expect a curated, largely automated experience. Already, we see this on the ground where incoming students are completely beside themselves in the antiquated library environment. One recent Facebook post on my library’s newsfeed noted: “The Library has a website?”

Another telling anecdote: One colleague of mine defined her job as teaching people to fish. I then asked: How many people actually go fishing anymore. Fishing to them is dropping by the supermarket. Full-stop.

The world is just getting too complicated for people to be expected to take the time to find information on their own. Information will continue to be a commodity, yes. Information will continue to badger the human mind. But AI servants and wildly different means of gathering information, will mean that single individuals will never have to tackle almost any information problem alone. The crowd, the bots and the apps will do the fishing.

And the web page will be like Matrix code that few ever need to concern themselves with. Get ready…

Optimism for a Change

The good folks at Singularity University continue to trail blaze into a starry-eyed future. I’m pretty pessimistic about where we’re headed, but watching Peter Diamandis explain away fear and how the future is one of abundance and optimism, even made me hopeful.

Check it out:

Peter Diamandis

Abundance is Our Future

Future is More than just Mobile

Prediction season is upon us. We’re coming up on 02012, and prepping for my library’s 6 month review of our annual plan. So, why not a few thoughts on the future of libraries?

Obviously annual plans only look a year out and so immediate technologies are top of mind in that particular document: mobile, Quick Response Codes (QRC’s), location-based services (LBS) and eBooks, to name a few. But I’m a far-focused futurist, so allow me to indulge that perspective as I consider the future of libraries and what we’re doing at DePaul University’s Libraries.

Let’s start with mobile. This is a hot topic among librarians, but few understand that the long-term mobile story is just getting started. In just a few years, brands such as Android and Apple will offer the truly killer app of mobile technology: Google Goggles and iShades. And when that happens, those augmented reality devices will dwarf the techno-social impacts the Internet has stirred thus far.

Think back to when Bill Clinton began heralding the age of the Information Super Highway back in the mid-1990s. Readers of Mondo2000, that shining, but short-lived Silicon Valley technobabble magazine (before there was Wired!), will recall its pages filled with dreams of global social uprisings spawned by the freeing of information from the oppressive clutches of the physical world. Anything would be possible…perhaps, gulp, a psychedelic, neo-anarchistic Utopia that would make Occupy Wall Street shudder!

Mondo2000 and the Clintonians had big ideas and many have come true in one way or another. But nowhere in that vision was mobile.

Fast forward to 02012 and mobile is changing the Internet once again. We hear about “responsive design” for our websites that take the mobile view as the starting place and build out from there. We hear about mobile reference services. QRC’s in the stacks. Mobile-friendly knowledge management services embedded in our web services.

But this is near-focused planning that, by 02022, will prove as naive as Mondo2000’s 01991 musings on Mandelbrot fractals that will one-day synch with your CD Player!

Google Goggles and iShades will be about taking the Internet and laying it over the physical landscape: Your street, your friends, your sports, your own person and, yes, your libraries. Information formerly at your fingertips, will now be on your eyeballs, on demand, curated to your personal, social and professional history with relevancy also weighted by your actual location. And I might emphasize, that physical location itself will be embedded with a history of FAQs built up by previous Killroys that stood there before you.

So, you might ask, if I’ve got Wikipedia, Yelp, Google and Angry Birds super-imposed over my world, why do I even need a library in my town or university?

Let’s be honest, many people will not. Quasi-intelligent web services (akin to today’s forerunners like IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri) will be able to field most public library-type questions, basing their answers on all the kinds of data curation variables listed above. Information commons will also be made redundant for most people as software moves to web versions that you can manipulate in the air just in front of your physical body. And books…give me a break. Print…and text for that matter…will soon be confined to a narrow set of use cases. Video, web-demos and avatar instructors will be the new medium of most communication in the world of Augmented Reality. And I would add, web pages will be as antiquated in 02022 as the yellow pages are in 02012.

But all this said, the library will still have a role, some of it fulfilling its traditional mission of bringing information to those without the means or skills to access it on their own. And let’s face it, we are moving into a world of reduced resources and scaled-back prosperity; a world that will need to go through some painful transitions in how it supplies affordable energy, right down to affordable calories for those 7+billion human engines going viral on Spaceship Earth. So, there will be no shortage of people requiring a central technology and information access point…that place we will call the library.

But new services will also be core to their work. Despite a more humble economic outlook, the world of 02022 and beyond will hardly be standing still. Technological change will be accelerating and with it, there will be pressure for even extraordinary people to cope. Enter the techbrarian: an expert in emerging devices, web services and information resources whose job it will be to train students, business people and the general public on how to keep up with the dizzying changes hurdling us into Tomorrow.

At DePaul’s Libraries, we’re laying the groundwork for this Age of Augmentation (and disruption). QRC’s are our starting point, even though they are really just a bridge technology like the Prius is to Electric Vehicles and the Walkman was to the iPod. Layering our stacks with those distorted crossword-puzzle-looking codes is akin to assigning a URI to a physical location, which is a baby-step toward augmented reality.

Our plan comes in three initial phases, starting with creating QRC access points to reference services, leading to integration of our LibGuide Research Guides with relevant sections of our stacks and then on toward taking the QRCs outside the library to other locations around campus. Eventually, we envision applying this technology to allow users to check out computer terminals and reserve rooms.

But QRCs are small potatoes. Ultimately, we envision taking the URI’s assigned to physical locations and generating augmented reality services. Imagine walking into our library with your iShades on and being able to instantly identify available rooms based on green indicators super-imposed over our library doors. Imagine being able to have a virtual chat with a reference librarian/machine whose avatar appears in a window hovering over the rare book you are examining…a librarian who can see what you see on the page and help you understand the nuances of the book’s illustrations. Imagine coming in to the library broke and confused, but with an urgent information need that requires you to visit the sub-surface oceans of Ganymede to understand the recently discovered xenocology swimming in all that Jovian brine.

Welcome to DePaul’s Libraries of 02022! This is your techbrarian speaking: Check out the latest in augmented eyeware, sit back and prepare for liftoff!

Dazzled to the End

I’ve been going to the Dark Side again, reading Eaarth by Bill McKibben, another one of those “we’re so screwed” climate change books. His vision is one I’ve written about elsewhere, but since I started this decidedly more optimistic FAIL!Lab blogging effort, I thought it would be interesting to reconcile the two very different outlooks.

In fact, I was reading Clusterfuck Nation, James Howard Kunstler’s blog on peak oil, et al, and he hit a nerve. As he so often does, he noted the moth-like fascination with technology that seems to enchant people these days…these End of Days days. Kunstler has a lot of contempt for threads like FAIL!lab, which admittedly has a better-living-through-technology impulse. In his mind, when peak oil starts to make modern civilization impossible, all that technology will amount to nothing more than naively construed dead end…a cultural clusterfuck that just fizzled out with the last drop of cheap crude.

Personally, I share McKibben’s and Kunstler’s pessimistic vision: it’s already too late to avoid collapse of life as we know it. We dithered too long. We didn’t change while we still had all that cheap fuel, a more uni-polar world economy, a cooler-milder planet and, above all, time. Talk about a big FAIL.

McKibben actually couches this notion in an interesting way, suggesting that we now live on a new planet called Eaarth. Trouble is, we really don’t know how to keep 6 billion people (and growing) alive on this new world where nothing is certain. Not the coastlines, not the rainfall, not the viability of our breadbaskets, nothing. His suggestion is that we need to change our bad habits if we’re to have any chance of saving civilization, namely by reorganizing on more local, sustainable models.

I’m actually less optimistic than McKibben. I don’t think the current global zeitgeist can conceive of the sacrifices needed to avert disaster. And if we ever do come around to making the necessary changes it will happen too late. That’s because long before the climate goes truly haywire, the seemingly incremental changes will be enough to bring our economy down.

After reading the assessments from experts in science, agriculture, energy, insurance, finance and the military, I concluded that these crucial sectors will likely collapse in just a decade or two. Some like Kunstler suggest there is evidence that we are already in the midst of this collapse, pointing out the food-driven revolutions in the Arab world, persistant oil price inflation, etc. Indeed, one of the first scientists to warn about the climate was James Lovelock, who has now given up on our survival beyond a scant few of us left to wander the Arctic Circle.

These are the thinkers that I agree with. But, of course, one has to have hope. And so I pin that on the remote possibility that at the last minute, human ingenuity will be able to keep up with the crisis. This is a tall order, of course, because several key developments need to fall into place very, very soon for us to stave off total ruin.

We need bio-tech to re-engineer our crops so that they can survive on McKibben’s new Eaarth. Plants that can withstand the kinds of unprecedented heat waves that destroyed a third of Russia’s grain harvest last year. Plants that can handle salt water intrusion. Plants that can withstand floods like those that hit Australia this year. Plants that do without the fossil-fuel based pesticides and fertilizers that will soon be too expensive for 6+ billion people.

We need fusion energy. The Chinese are working on this furiously. So are the Europeans. We need these foreign researchers to save us from the impending oil shock, and from the nightmare that will come when we turn to coal to keep our homes comfortable and our cities lit.

We need the electric car to get alot cheaper. Not because I think there is much hope in keeping our atomized, egotistical mode of transportation functioning in a world beyond peak oil and continued commodity inflation. But we need cheaper batteries for electric buses and trains.

And some, if not all of this, may actually happen because of the ultimate invention: the Technological Singularity. You see, if you can build a machine that is exponentially more intelligent than we are, and you can lend it human empathy (perhaps by merging human consciousness with this machine), then you might be able to invent all the nifty things that will keep Homo sapiens and what few fellow critters remain on Eaarth with us, alive.

This is my hope…my last, lingering fantasy of how it will all be okay.