I have been thinking a lot lately about this reality. As librarians we like to think that there are certain things tech will not touch- at least not in our lifetimes. Take the reference interview. We still need humans for that right? I mean, even if artificial intelligence (AI) gets that good people will still want human interaction right? According to Sherry Turkle at MIT the answer to that question is changing:
"Turkle studies people's thoughts and feelings about robots, and has found a culture shift over time. Where subjects in her studies used to say, in the 1980s and '90s, that love and friendship are connections that can occur only between humans, people now often say robots could fill these roles."
On a practical level, computer based reference has a lot of benefits. One computer could perform 1 or 100 reference interviews in real time. Instead of searching one location at a time, a computer could search the books, magazines, databases, and anywhere else in a matter of seconds. They are also available 24/7...
The problem is of course that AI is not advanced enough to communicate with a human being at this level, but if you think about what Siri and other commercial applications are already doing the idea is not that far fetched. If you follow AI and robotics even slightly, the idea seems pretty clear and simple- almost inevitable.
The question is what do we do with reference librarians? What usually happens when an institution is not prepared is that it fades away once the new method has reached critical mass. Remember blacksmiths, coopers, Borders, Blockbuster? Some of those services became outmoded and were simply unnecessary, but some of them failed to predict change fast enough and were simply unable to adapt services. Rather than get rid of reference librarians, I would hope that we can shift their work to higher functions like outreach.
It is difficult to predict just how disruptive the continued growth of technology will be, but there are some areas like this where it seems reasonable for administrators and professors to start thinking about possible solutions before those solutions become so ubiquitous that our services are quietly phased out. I would argue that Siri is the first sign that we need to start thinking about the next phase now rather than later. Unfortunately, after a few months of thinking about the problem I still don't have much in the way of answers. But they are out there. Maybe an AI will find the answer for us.
Finally, I do not consider this good news per se. I am more of a traditionalist and think that human beings are not reducible in purely materialist terms. I am quite concerned about the loss of something deeply human in all of this. What I am arguing is that institutions like libraries very often have little say in change, because they are not prepared for it when it happens. Based on current developments in robotics and AI, it seems reasonable to conclude that some of our core services like reference will be taken over by machines. Librarians need to be thinking about this. Our administrators and leaders need to understand and prepare. In some ways it will allow us to shift human resources to more external big picture tasks and goals. But we will not be able to do that if we are not consciously aware of this and other changes that may happen.