4.the singularity
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4.the singularity Document Transcript

  • 1. The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at www.emeraldinsight.com/0888-045X.htm BUDGETING FOR LIBRARIES The singularity and the library The singularity and the library Kirstin Steele The Citadel, Daniel Library, Charleston, South Carolina, USA 227 Accepted 5 October 2011AbstractPurpose – This article aims to consider what libraries might be used for after machines becomesmarter than humans.Design/methodology/approach – The article considers how Vernor Vinge’s novel Across Realtimeand his essay “The coming technological singularity” inform possible library futures.Findings – Libraries might become havens for humans left out of the high-tech future, or museumsfor defunct technologies, or vanish completely.Originality/value – The article expands discussion of the library’s future beyond the foreseeable.Keywords Future, Intelligence amplifiers, Singularity, Libraries, Forward planningPaper type ViewpointThe Singularity is an idea that human intelligence will someday be surpassed byartificial intelligence, that the first machine we make that is smarter than a human willbe the last machine we need to make, since the machine can then take over inventingand building. I have found it interesting to ponder how the Singularity might affectpatrons, libraries, and their budgets. I became drawn to the idea after reading Kurzweil’s (2005) book The Singularity IsNear. Unfortunately, the concept seems to be written largely in physics, a language Ihave not learned. When I saw the 2011 Singularity Summit advertised, I thought suchan event would be beyond my ken, but that it would not hurt to peruse the conference’sweb site: www.singularitysummit.com/ Included amongst the physics books on thereading list is a reference to Vinge’s (1986a) novel called Marooned in Realtime. I founda copy included in Across Realtime (Vinge, 1986b). I love that the story presentsversions of the Singularity I can actually visualize. Thus inspired, I found a link to his1993 essay “The coming technological singularity” (www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html) via Amazon.com’s author page for Vinge. Althoughpresented at a NASA program, I found the paper to be quite readable. Based on Vernor’s word pictures, I can imagine that technology will eventuallybecome so small as to disappear, and we will be able to access publicly available datajust by thinking about it. I have no idea how it will work; happily, technologicalprogress is not dependent upon my comprehension. Given the explosion of strong,small, and addictive personal computing devices (such as my beloved smartphone) andinventions like electronic paper, it is easy for me to believe that we will break throughthe physical membrane restricting our thoughts within my lifetime. The Bottom Line: Managing Library The most compelling part of the essay for me is when Dr Vinge discusses Finances Vol. 24 No. 4, 2011intelligence amplification (IA). I find IA much easier and more natural to imagine than pp. 227-229artificial intelligence (AI), more like a logical progression than an invention. I often joke q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0888-045Xabout Google’s e-mail archives being an extension of my brain, with a better search DOI 10.1108/08880451111193325
  • 2. BL engine. Likewise, in Across Realtime, characters use headbands and other devices to24,4 extend their thinking abilities and multitask (e.g., have multiple tabs open). Many inventions across time have amplified humans’ abilities, if not, one could argue, our intelligence. Shoes, automobiles, and rockets have not only changed how fast and how far we can travel, but also how we see the world. My car feels like an extension of my body sometimes; occasionally in dreams I can adjust a crooked parking job just by228 shifting in my seat. Artificial limbs restore or enhance mobility and grip. Cameras and telephones and hearing aids permit us to see and hear more and at greater distances; why should the brain itself be exempt from such boosts? Books and computers, and especially the internet, have increased humans’ abilities to find and use knowledge, if not retain it. Fancy how magical it will be to just think of your question and have answers appear. It is a pretty short hop from typing a search of the world wide web, to speaking the search, to thinking it. The Internet has become a kind of collective memory of humanity, a library even, so perhaps one day our minds will become a collective intelligence, with native searching ability. What will the Singularity mean for libraries? Will we collect only fiction, music, and art? Although the word “knowledge” does not automatically connote creative works, the Internet includes images, music, and other media which are increasingly searchable. Again, think how much easier it will be to just picture something in your head and have its metadata appear for you, than to try to describe an image in enough words to get a good results list. Maybe libraries will remain a virtual gateway to subscription-based or other restricted data. I suspect there will be enough “stay-behinds” or “low-techs” remaining, who rebuff intelligence amplifiers out of distrust or lack of financial resources, to keep traditional librarians in business for decades to come. Perhaps libraries will become repositories for maintaining previous generations of IA – books (of course!), computers that read floppy drives (oops, too late), flash drives and optical discs, and semi-smart phones that understand only one language. In that case, librarians might be some of the only humans left who have jobs. From Dr Vinge’s 1993 essay: We will see automation replacing higher and higher level jobs. We have tools right now (symbolic math programs, cad/cam) that release us from most low-level drudgery. Or put another way: The work that is truly productive is the domain of a steadily smaller and more elite fraction of humanity. In the coming of the Singularity, we are seeing the predictions of true technological unemployment finally come true. That paragraph makes me wonder if there is more to the continuing unemployment crisis than billionaires hoarding their cash . . . which is not to infer that said billionaires are the same “elite fraction” that is “truly productive.” If there are no jobs to be had, will librarians continue to try to help unemployed human patrons with employment searches? Maybe libraries will become oases of relief from the Singularity, or even hotbeds of anti-technology agitation. Oddly, I have occasional urges to make sure our collection has post-doomsday “survival” resources. In any scenario, and particularly if libraries turn into home base for resisting The Terminator or The Matrix, where will library funding come from? Will public libraries be like pawn shops or swap meets, where patrons pay admission or offer custom-made tinfoil hats and old books in exchange for data access? Post-Singularity it is difficult for me to visualize a need for institutionally-based higher education, so consequently there might be no need for
  • 3. academic libraries. The super-human machine could find a way to make money The singularityunnecessary, so libraries might not need budgets at all. In the June 2011 issue of Information Technology and Libraries, Truitt (2011) points and the libraryout that the society-saturating technologies of radio and television have not beenwidely reflected in libraries. On the other hand, without the internet, libraries arepractically inoperable. I think the Singularity, regardless of what it looks like, will be ¨here sooner than we realize, and it would be naıve to assume that libraries’ bottom lines 229will not be affected.ReferencesKurzweil, R. (2005), The Singularity Is Near, Viking, New York, NY.Truitt, M. (2011), “Editorial: singularity – are we there, yet?”, Information Technology & Libraries, June, pp. 55-9.Vinge, V. (1986a), Marooned in Realtime, Bluejay Books, St Martin’s Press, New York, NY.Vinge, V. (1986b), Across Realtime, Doubleday, New York, NY.Corresponding authorKirstin Steele can be contacted at: Kirstin.steele@citadel.eduTo purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: reprints@emeraldinsight.comOr visit our web site for further details: www.emeraldinsight.com/reprints