It is still early in the development of artificial intelligence but eventually it will change the work of librarians—or make it irrelevant. How likely is it that we will be replaced by bots in the future?
Artificial intelligence (AI) took a big leap forward on March 9, 2016. That’s the day the world’s master of Go, a complex board game, was badly beaten by Google’s DeepMind Alpha Go computer. Lee Se-dol exclaimed in surprise, because he never thought a computer could beat him at Go. Computers beat humans at chess and Jeopardy long ago. Go was seen as a vastly more rigorous test of artificial intelligence because it requires instinct, intuition, and evaluation capabilities, human qualities that computers cannot match—or so we thought until now. Leading up to this match and in its aftermath there has been extensive speculation in the mass media about a future where artificially intelligent robots and devices interact with humans. Will they free us to enjoy life more fully? Produce Matrix-style enslavement of our race? Simply take over most of our jobs? While the impact of AI is hard to predict, experts agree it will happen faster than we expect.
Are Librarians Replaceable?
Industrial robots have already eliminated thousands of workers’ positions by performing their manufacturing jobs. It is now a question of whether robots can do the jobs once thought safe from being easily replaced. In his book A Whole New Mind Dan Pink’s advice to avoid being made obsolete by outsourcing, offshoring, and what we’ll probably refer to as “getting roboted,” is to gain employment in professions where “right brain qualities—inventiveness, empathy, meaning—predominate.” In other words, soft skills that require an emotional intelligence are exceedingly difficult to automate or delegate. When I first read A Whole New Mind I was reasonably sure that much of what library workers do, particularly when it involves design activity, fits well with those “right brain” activities that should make us irreplaceably robot-proof. Now I am less certain.
Even before the battle of Go I had noticed a distinct uptick in online news and debate about a future shaped by artificial intelligence, and whether it would lead to a new era of freedom for humanity or enslavement by robot overlords, with frequent references to the Terminator and Matrix movies. Articles like this one question whether our jobs will be eliminated by artificially intelligent robots. We should be safe for the next ten to 15 years. It may take that long for image recognition and data analysis to advance sufficiently for application to low-level human tasks. But don’t let that 2015 DARPA robot challenge make you overconfident about your job security. AI will change the job market. In the not-too-distant future deep learning technology will allow a machine to recognize patterns and use trial and error to teach itself a how to accomplish a new task—kind of the way we do. Geoff Colvin, author of the book Humans Are Underrated, believes we have no reason to worry. AI’s mastery of complex games only suggests, according to Colvin, that “the skills of deep human interaction, the abilities to manage the exchanges that occur only between people, will only become more valuable.” Skills like empathy or creativity should allow humans to maintain a critical advantage over AI, in that they allow us to better understand the irrationality and unpredictability of our fellow humans.
That Robot Librarian
Do all library jobs need those skills? Could artificially intelligent machines eliminate library jobs? Consider a self-checkout terminal. It supplements the work of humans, although it lacks intelligence. But it’s not inconceivable that a robot could perform any number of similar library transactions and have the intelligence to respond to a human query. That seems to be the idea behind Hugh, the the robot librarian created by some researchers and engineers at Aberystwyth University. Librarian is probably not quite the right term since all Hugh can do is search the catalog, identify a book’s shelf location, and lead a patron to it. Still, if it can do all that it’d be impressive. Though not much more than a novelty for now, a robot library clerk could potentially replace stack or circulation workers. Hugh might be just the beginning. That’s the promise of AI for librarians. It could allow us to dispense with conducting routine transactions so that our resources could fully support complex interactions.
Where Does It End?
Based on what we know today about AI, despite all the excitement over a game of Go, academic librarians’ jobs should be secure for the foreseeable future. I wonder if the next generation or two of academic librarians will have that level of security. If today’s AI can be programmed for intuition and evaluation, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine AI being applied to question interpretation and resource recommendation. The things AI systems could learn about us as we conduct research could help humans to achieve better results. It’s conceivable a research project could be launched with a just a simple request. Today you can ask your phone’s digital assistant for directions or movie times. Tomorrow, why not a complex research query? Faculty, researchers and students all depend on librarians for their knowledge of sources and ability to navigate complex research resources. Minus the empathy, AI could potentially lead humans to make the discovery. I can see why some people are getting excited about a new age in which AI could free humans from the burden of tedious work—and be our robot servants. Librarians will need to learn much more about AI to understand where the line will be drawn between servant and replacement.