The city of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are growing centers for the development of artificial intelligence and a recent Studio 1A program had an interesting panel discussion on the development of the technology and how it is impacting the city. I was struck by the discussion at the end of the panel summarizing artificial intelligence’s drawbacks and benefits. One important drawback was communicated through astrophysicist, Steven Hawking’s, quote from a few years ago that artificial intelligence would outpace humanity in development by the mid-21st century based on our differing rates of evolution. The real strength of computers is their speed of calculation and efficiency, and helped by algorithms developed by people that help them to learn independently, they can develop systems and environments faster than humanity without the input of emotions or ethical considerations. In a way it sounds like a scenario where parents raise children to be efficient and fast without teaching them values or community ethics. That is a world that concerns me.
It was also interesting to hear that one of the benefits of artificial intelligence was “freedom from pain” which sounds like a benefit until you hear how it echos the promise the arch-villian, IT, gave to Meg, the hero, in the classic novel by Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. IT is an evil, disembodied brain that subjugated a whole planet to its will and in order to break down Meg’s resistance, IT promised her that if she gave in she would be free of the burden of having to make decisions and experiencing pain.
There are certainly benefits worth considering for artificial intelligence and knowing about them and how they work is crucial to our future. The benefits discussed in the Studio 1A program include how a city transportation system driven by AI would be more efficient and would be likely to have less accidents. The core technology driving artificial intelligence is algorithms, the steps involved in solving problems and doing calculations. This 1-hour documentary, The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms (available on Netflix or if your institution subscribes to Films on Demand), discusses what algorithms are and shows an example of how they are used to match kidney donors and recipients in the UK health system. This example of artificial intelligence takes a large amount of health data and processes it using algorithms designed to find patterns that will match donors and recipients across the country much faster than existing human-run networks can do.
So what does this have to do with Libraries? The capabilities to find matches across vast stores of data and dispersed communities reminds me of Interlibrary Loan. I wonder what would happen if artificial intelligence was applied to the matching process of libraries lending to one another? What data would we apply algorithms to? What algorithms already exist or could be further developed? What ethical concerns are there when applying AI to this context? What is the role of the librarian in this scenario?