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Artificial Intelligence and Public Libraries

Published on Mon, 10/28/2019 - 08:24am
artificial intelligence

Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to attend the Urban Library Council Annual Forum. This organization, comprised of large and urban libraries, provides great learning opportunities for me and my staff. Perhaps the most exciting part of a program like the Annual Forum is that it encourages us to look beyond today, beyond tomorrow, and to explore the horizon to identify important topics and how a library-appropriate response could help address those to make our community better.

This year’s topic focused on artificial intelligence, digital citizenship, and the library’s role in such matters. There were several important points that I took from the meeting that I think we should all be considering. Artificial intelligence sounds like something that is far off in the future, but as sci-fi author William Gibson once said, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

But if the future is here, then why don’t we all have helper robots like on the Jetsons and temperamental computer systems that we fight with to open the “pod bay” doors? What does Gibson mean? Technology that can learn and predict based on a vast array of data is here and functioning well, for the most part. For instance, a recently released toothbrush can monitor your brushing techniques and tell you when you need to spend more time on certain parts of your routine or change the way you brush your teeth. A recent interactive art installation in Massachusetts listened to conversations and could determine if what was being said was funny or not.

Most of this doesn’t sound nearly as frightening as the dystopian concerns that many have with technology, but that doesn’t mean all is well. As is often the case, a solution today can become the kernel of tomorrow’s problem. New problems will present themselves. For example, there is a saying: “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?”

This expression, usually said by disingenuous people, was meant to make people doubt what they saw. However, these words take on a whole new meaning when you learn that there is now artificial intelligence technology that allows users to create videos of any person saying any words that they program their mouths to say. Can you trust the words of a world leader making a speech when you see it?  

This provides a very interesting opportunity for libraries. For generations, we have worked to help people find high-quality, valid information. We can help people develop new critical thinking skills to understand what is real and what is computer-generated. It is all a new way of approaching critical thinking and developing library collections.

Having a little over a day to look well out on the horizon has been helpful for me to think about our response to these future concerns. I have no idea what this library-appropriate response will look like, but I know we will be there to help the people in our community find quality information and discard machine-created falsehoods.

Steven V. Potter
MCPL Director & CEO

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