Without a doubt, artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the most important new technologies in the world, with the power to create entirely new industries and professions.
Stanford professor Andrew Ng, in fact, has called AI “the new electricity” for its potential world-changing possibilities. So it’s perhaps only natural to ask: What impact will AI have on libraries and the world of literature?
Machines will become the new librarians
Perhaps most obviously, AI machines will soon have the power to take over the role of librarians.
They will have the power to become not just the stewards of the world’s information and literature, but also trusted mentors, research advisors, and content matter experts.
At some point, machines will be able to read literally every book in the library. They, then, could offer their own insights, conclusions, and perspectives.
In many ways, you can see the precursor to this massive trend in the mainstream adoption of AI-powered virtual assistants.
For millions of people, it no longer seems strange to ask Google, Alexa, Cortana or Siri questions and get a reasonably intelligent reply in response. For now, of course, Alexa might only be able to answer basic questions – such as which song is playing in the background, or what the temperature is outside.
However, within a few short years, it’s easy to see how similar types of AI personal assistants will be standard-issue at libraries.
“Hey Google, what are the names of the most famous sonnets written by Shakespeare?”
“Siri, what is the ending of Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ novel?”
Physical books might go extinct, but libraries won’t!
Ever since the creation of the Great Library of Alexandria, human civilizations have created libraries to house their greatest treasures.
Even with each new technological innovation, libraries have proven remarkably resilient to change. So it’s unlikely that libraries are going to go extinct, even as AI becomes more and more powerful.
Remember when everyone said the Internet was going to result in the extinction of libraries? That famous prediction never came true.
Libraries added computers for users, digitized their entire collections, added e-books and online scholarly journals, and became local neighborhood hubs for speakers, special events, and training sessions.
Some neighborhood libraries even added cafes and encouraged patrons to hang out at night, drinking coffee and meeting fellow book lovers and writers.
However, physical books could be headed the way of the dinosaurs.
In the age of AI, information has to be digitized in order to be processed by machine learning algorithms. That means the pressure will be on libraries to make their entire collection completely available in digital format. Thus, it’s easy to see how the e-book is going to replace the physical book in libraries.
For one, digital books help to solve the problem of not having enough physical shelf space for all books.
In the AI future, it’s quite conceivable that every library – no matter how small or where it is located in the world – will have total, 100% access to every book ever written in the history of humanity.
In order to grasp the enormity of this development, one short story you might want to read is The Library of Babel by Argentine author (and librarian) Jorge Luis Borges.
Libraries will not just be for humans
These first two trends – the rise of machine librarians and the creation of a hypothetical Libraries of Babel – are fairly easy to extrapolate from current technological trends. But what about some really futuristic changes?
It’s quite possible that libraries will no longer be just for humans. In short, extremely intelligent AI bots could become fixtures at the local library.
For example, think about IBM Watson – the AI supercomputer that is now being used by medical doctors to diagnose ailments of patients, by lawyers to research decades of case law, and by taxpayers to simplify their tax returns (in partnership with the corporation H&R Block).
IBM Watson, in fact, has become so famous within the United States that it now has its own TV commercials – a sure sign that AI is tipping into the cultural mainstream.
So imagine a future in which libraries get their own versions of IBM Watson to help out patrons.
For book lovers who can’t afford a human doctor, it might be more practical to consult IBM Watson for free medical advice at the local library.
For book lovers who need free legal advice, it might be possible to book an hour of AI-powered legal advice with IBM Watson, in much the same way that they sign up for 30-minute Internet sessions at today’s libraries.
And, in a really futuristic scenario, it’s quite possible that machines will become the patrons themselves. If there is one thing that machines need in order to power their algorithms, it’s data… lots and lots of data. And not just structured data, either.
They need access to as much information and data as possible, in whatever format it is found.
In the future, if there are super-intelligent anthropomorphic robots or humanoids, it’s conceivable that you could be hanging out at your local library and a C3PO robot walks by, or an R2D2 robot rolls by.
They might be sent by corporations or government agencies to “check out” digital books and download them for use later.
AI could change the way we create literature
One big debate within the world of AI is whether machines will ever be able to experience emotions like love or empathy.
Right now, AI-powered machines are incapable of understanding human emotions. And quite frankly, they really don’t care.
When machines are scanning images of the earth for use later in powerful AI tools to predict the weather, do they care about the beauty of a set of clouds? Or about the gentle reflection of the sun on the ocean at sunset?
So, it’s conceivable that as machines become more and more powerful, they will change the way we create literature, to focus much more on fact (which they can use) than on fiction (which must seem nonsensical to them). In fact, it could already be the case that machines are already changing the way we create content.
Humans are changing the way they converse with each other to make it easier for machines to understand them.
Google is teaching us how to ask questions properly in order to get the best responses. In order for machines to recognize human speech (an AI feat in itself), they need us to speak a certain way.
So will books of the future look very different from the books of today?
Will they be in a format easy for computers – and not necessarily humans – to understand?
Will they even be in a language that we recognize?
In one famous example, a Facebook AI experiment completely broke down when two AI bots began to speak in an entirely new language that they created on their own, without the researchers running the experiment knowing what they were saying to each other. (English, it turns out, might not be algorithmically efficient!)
A cautionary note about AI and libraries
Thus far, all of these changes to libraries and literature have seemed to be fairly benign. But is there anything we should be wary of?
One thing to be wary of is what can best be called “the tyranny of the algorithm.”
Think of the way you search on Google. The results you are shown are customized for your browsing habits and for your web behavior. The same might be true of library AI searches as well. Whatever AI machine has replaced the local librarian might also come with its own algorithmic biases.
In a worst-case scenario, machines might censor information or data that they don’t want humans to know. Or they might decide to ban books that they consider harmful for the future of humanity.
Throughout human history, our leaders have sought to ban books they considered dangerous. Might not machines do the same once they become more intelligent than us?
So, as you can see, AI has enormous power to change the future of libraries and literature. The next time you see one of your colleagues using an Amazon Echo or asking Siri a question on his or her iPhone, you may be seeing a glimpse of the great AI future of libraries.
I would like you to share your thoughts about the future of libraries. Do you think that AI, once it becomes prevalent, will upend the way we use libraries? Or will the coming-of-age AI render libraries obsolete? Please share your comments below.