Magazine article Online

WWRSD: What Would Roger Summit Do?

Magazine article Online

WWRSD: What Would Roger Summit Do?

Article excerpt

I recently received an email query from someone considering becoming an independent info pro. His background was in IT, and he was adept at designing databases and search engines. He wanted to know if those were the key skills he would need to become an info entrepreneur. Had he asked me that 5 or 10 years ago, I would have told him he had just the right set of skills. I know of very few infoentrepreneurs who don't have years of expertise in using the fee-based online services: Creating effective queries and retrieving content cost-effectively have always been critical info pro skills.

Today, though, building an effective search query is just one of the areas of expertise that are necessary (but far from sufficient) for info pros. With Facebook and Twitter just an app away and Siri able to do our Google searching for us, information has become a commodity. In fact, this morning I checked the day's weather from my phone as I turned off its alarm; I literally conduct searches before I get out of bed in the morning. Clearly, searching ain't what it used to be.

In preparation for a recent panel discussion at the SLA annual conference with Roger Summit, the founder of Dialog and an information visionary, I was reflecting on the impact he had on our profession. Back in the 1960s, online searching meant arranging for a computer programmer to design a query of a database, execute the search, and ship the results to the requester.

Roger had the vision to imagine research databases being queried interactively by users, using an intuitive (well, relatively intuitive) interface. In other words, he disinter-mediated the resource, giving access to searchers who no longer needed to understand the underlying mechanics of the data retrieval process and who could now focus on finding the best information available.

Fast-forward 50 years and Dialog, along with its competitors, still provides online access to information to searchers and, increasingly, the ultimate information consumers. The changes in the search world

have been dramatic--300 baud modems, anyone?--but I have not seen any innovations that remotely match the leap from batch-mode processing to interactive queries. If a 30-year-old Roger Summit were presented with today's information world, what would he identify as the key problem?

As I asked myself that question, my mind went to IBM's Watson, an artificial intelligence computer system designed to understand and interpret natural language questions. In a field test of sorts, Watson was a competitor on the TV quiz show JEOPARDY! …

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