Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Information Is Where You Find It

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Information Is Where You Find It

Article excerpt

We librarians, as well as information professionals of other stripes, think we have done something marvelous with the introduction of computers into the realm of information processing and access. It's certainly true that computers do these things very well. But we know that, because of their limitations, computers and automation cannot replace serendipity--that is, pure luck--in the process of information access and retrieval.

Remember the movie Rain Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise? Hoffman had the title character--an idiot savant, to use the pejorative term. People such as this function in society barely if at all. Their brains have incredible abilities: they can remember everything they've ever read, or can play the piano brilliantly without a single lesson. Yet they may lack normal abilities such as being able to hold a conversation or perform simple mechanical feats.

Computers are our electronic "idiot savants" in libraries. They can hold tremendous amounts of data, process it, and regurgitate it at blinding speed. Yet they have not the faintest clue what it all means. Proponents of Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been toiling in laboratories around the world for decades to create and program machines that have the equivalent intelligence of a rat ... with uneven results. Not only do their "intelligent machines" lack common sense, they lack the ability to get lucky as well.

To be sure, the process is still underway, and some breakthroughs have been achieved. Recently a machine beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Granted, they were playing "blitz" (speed chess), and it was a multiple match. I might also add that the computer won on a blunder by Kasparov that many lesser players caught instantly. Still, the organic champ lost. It may be remembered for all time as the beginning of the end for human chess champions. And it may be the first incident in history of a machine being lucky.

Intelligent Agents and Other Wise Guys

Even with AI, "knowbots," and other new technologies, we still find that computers aren't able to do what we want them to do yet: discover things that interest us. A knowbot is an interesting example. These programs can take our laundry list of interests out onto the net and bring back to us everything that they find relating to those subjects. The fatal flaw here is the assumption that I, as the user, know what I want and can specify it in terms a machine can understand.

Another big problem with intelligent agents is that I, like most people, still like to browse. Browsing doesn't lend itself to AI, knowbots, etc. Browsing is the experience of "A-ha! Pretty interesting!" Browsing is the unintentional discovery of something that changes us. Think for a minute about all the inventions and discoveries that have come about through such accidents. Microwave ovens and silicone fabric spray are just a couple out of thousands. At the edge of our knowledge horizon is where the fun lies. Sometimes, like young Edisons, we even brave certain risks for those experiences. The fact that the legendary physicist Enrico Fermi had side bets with other scientists about the effects of the first atomic bomb should make us see this. If you're not familiar with the story, he felt that there was a chance the blast would spark an uncontrolled chain reaction in earth's atmosphere, and that we would become a smaller version of the sun. …

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