Guardians of the Past, Enablers of the Future

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This page last updated Fri Jan 7 23:42:33 US/Pacific 2011


Here are the notes for my talk at ALA Midwinter Meeting, 8 January 2011.
At the moment, this file is also available at:

The Technological Singularity

More than any other animal, we humans invent ways to outsource cognitive function. We've been doing this for a long time. For instance, writing is an outsourcing of memory; money is a scalar that allows the comparison of vastly different objects.

During the last century, the outsourcing process has become more diverse and intense.

It seems plausible that with technology we can, in the fairly near future, create (or become) creatures who surpass humans in every intellectual and creative dimension.

Paths to the Singularity

each with its special flavor and danger and promise (though developments are concurrent and interacting):

Note that all together this list engages the efforts of hundreds of thousands of serious researchers, many of whom are not knowing participants in the enterprise.

Even though the post-Singularity world will probably be
incomprehensible to us, the runup to the transition is something we can track -- and more importantly -- even effect.

During that time, almost every occupation will be disrupted and transformed, even and especially those that are most important to progress. Librarians for instance ...

Humanity plus Computer Networks

The Internet is already evidence of radical intellectual change in Human culture. As much as illustrating the power of computers, the Internet shows the power of large numbers of educated, creative, communicating, human beings. Nowadays, for almost any topic, the world's most focused hobbyists (and often professional specialists) are "just down the hall" from your office.

Making library facilities accessible via the tools of the Web is probably the most natural and least stressful of the transformations one can imagine for the library enterprise.

At the same time, this path to the Singularity provides hope that humanity will be able to guide progress along the other paths toward safe outcomes.

Intelligence Amplification

How intimate can the user interface (with computers and networks) become?

Paraphrasing David Brin's take on the close coupling of computers with the human intellect: ~"The computer portions might make up a kind of neo-neocortex, providing scalable processing power, while the organic part provides what we natural humans have always been good at: desire, setting goals and aims.~"

In 2011, the most spectacular manifestation of progress along this path is the popularity of smartphones (such as Android, iPhone, ...).

Augmented reality applications have appeared and should become much more important if we can get widespread use of head-up displays and high accuracy positioning technology.

Smartphones provide local processing and sensing. In principle, they allow the power of the Internet to be focused upon individual concerns, in almost any location and situation. If the goal of this progress is to provide the "neo-neocortex" that David Brin talks about, what does that imply about access to libraries?

Nowadays, most people are familiar with the style of google searches. Those searches could improved with more information about the user (for example, information about where the user is looking and what s/he is saying). This level of interface was apparent in Rainbows End. The goal beyond Rainbows End would be information access as swift as natural human memory -- and often solutions produced as fast problems can be imagined.

Many years ago I saw a librarian pictured as the people's safari guide through the jungles of accumulated knowledge. I still love that metaphor, but it is unsettling to realize that, in fact, librarianship may soon become a seamless aspect of cognition.

Below the user interface

Once digitized, these are not large bodies (by 2011 standards). Once digitized, there are at least two big problems. The first is the need impose structure on the data.

If an a priori scope limit can be established, a corpus can be crafted into a wondrous jewel of knowledge.

Of course, the second big problem with large data stores is that there is no scope limitation. Even worse ...

The Collyer Brothers discover cyberspace

At the other extreme from the gems of organized knowledge are the data piles created by those users who are never satisfied, whose data always fills whatever storage space current tech and budgets can supply, stressing even the gentlest data structuring tools.

In fact, hardcore cyberspace packrats revel in using the new technologies to generate more data. They didn't blink at Petabytes; they may not blink at Exabytes.

In fact, it takes only moderate imagination to conceive of uses for such volumes of data (though humans might shrink from calling it information, much less knowledge).

We are already in a situation where most data will never ever by seen by even a single human being. Miracles might lurk within it, but that is the domain of the machines. The machines will need librarians....

Beyond the server farms: Digital Gaia

Nowadays, when people talk about large quantities of stored data, they usually think of huge server farms. There is another model for large scale storage and computation: