Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Three Enduring Trends, Sustained by Crossover Thinking

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Three Enduring Trends, Sustained by Crossover Thinking

Article excerpt


Recently I attended a fundraising event that featured Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, and California governor Jerry Brown. Over the course of the evening, I talked to several former doctoral students I have known, many of whom are now professors. One conversation in particular stood out. Professor Chris Benner (University of California-Davis) is an urban and regional planning specialist with a strong interest in the workplace. During his doctoral study, he conducted fieldwork in Silicon Valley, which has a strong local labor movement. Benner asked me if I knew anybody studying labor and technology, and we chatted about folks we knew and cool things we had seen. One in particular was, the popular content aggregator that takes all the streaming media you could wish for, formats it as a personal newspaper, and archives old issues (more on this later). Benner has used as a metabibliography and cite tool, especially for retrieving interesting news, for a few years. But the most interesting thing he said is that he found out about from a group of Midwestern trade unionists working on a shoestring.

The moral of this story is this: Practical applications of new technologies come from anywhere and everywhere. So also do emerging tech trends - and there are more trends than ever at work as we go to press. Indeed, the recently published "Technology Outlook for UK Tertiary Education, 2011-16" identifies no fewer than eight hot trends to watch (trend watchers, do not miss this fantastic report). Alas, my available space requires me to limit my top trends to three, which is no simple task. But I do see common ground among my smaller group of finalists. We are in an era when deepening value is being squeezed from recent technology. That is especially good for our profession, tinkerers that we are.

Crossover Dreams

In late September, Nature: Structural and Molecular Biology published an article explaining how a group of scientists and online gamers worked together to produce an accurate model of a monomeric protease enzyme. The enzyme is a "cutting agent" in a family of retroviruses that includes HIV (see www. nature .com/nsmb/j ournal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ nsmb.2119.html). This has been a challenging task for many years, but this group tried a fresh approach. The online gamers used a fun-for-purpose video game called Foldit to create a model of the enzyme. Foldit was developed at the University of Washington in 2008 - not exactly brand-new in today's fast development cycle, but it continues to assert its true value. The gamers employed human intuition, ingenuity, and their advanced spatial cognitive skills (honed in the fast-paced world of gaming) to create an accurate model. Their success confirms that machine analysis cannot match human spatial and visualization skills ... yet. But it also demonstrates that innovative solutions from wildly disparate disciplines and hobbies can spawn whole new approaches to research, and the results can be quantified by the strictest scientific guidelines.

This was big news, but I can foretell that we are likely to see much more of the same and not just in the world of hard science. For example, enterprise search technology is being influenced by meaning-based computing (MBC), which I wrote about in ONLINE (see page 14, ONLINE September/October 2011). MBC applies probability-based economic modeling to parse structured and unstructured data, revealing new ways to understand meaning and intent. Cambridge economist Michael Lynch formulated the theory and went on to launch the FTSE 100 firm Autonomy, which has been acquired by HP. MBC uses an innovative approach to address a long-term problem: How can corporate firms develop taxonomies and ontologies that are more responsive to the way people use speech to convey (or conceal) what they truly mean? …

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