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Are Librarians Smarter Than a Machine?: The Wednesday Evening Session

Wednesday Evening Panel

Wednesday Evening Panel: (L-R) Stephen Abram (Chair), Ryan Hess, David Lee King, Amy Affelt, Gary Price, Susan Considine

The always popular evening session this year featured a panel of information professionals and several voice-activated devices plus a robot. Panelists on this session were Steven Abram (Chair), Ryan Hess, Dan Lou (not shown in photo), David Lee King, Amy Affelt, Gary Price, and Sue Considine.

Each panelist presented a short opinion on the devices, and then the audience was given the opportunity to interact with them and form their opinions. After that, audience participants reported on their experiences. The panelists huddled to determine prize winners; six prizes were given including two Alexa Dots, two Google Homes, and two copies of Peter Morville’s book Planning for Everything,

Questions to be answered included: How do we make sure that people learn how to use these devices? How do they fit into the Internet of Things trend? Are the devices smarter than librarians and will they replace them? Here are the panelists’ opinions:

David Lee King: When these things work really well, they will be easy for your grandmother to use. Not everything is quite that simple yet. Some things don’t work really well. Others work well—except when you don’t want them to (David was frequently interrupted by the Alexa on the speakers’ table).

Sue Considine: From a reference perspective, she is not convinced these devices are a substitute for the type of reference we do. Most people coming into a public library want to talk to a person.

Gary Price: We have a vocabulary issue with these things. (See his bibliography.) There are many privacy issues.

Amy Affelt: When she gets a good answer, she is surprised and delighted, but she has grave concerns. Now, we are being tracked without interacting with the device. What happens to a generation of kids using these devices for their homework? We still have a chance to teach young kids about quality news. What if the devices are dispensing fake news? The recordings can be used in a court. Who is storing the conversations? Are they ever deleted? We are giving up a lot in exchange for convenience.

Ryan and Dan: The No.1 cause of anxiety with these devices is if they will work. Before the robots take our jobs, we want the public to know how cute they are (they showed Dewey, a robot).

Members of the audience tried several of the devices with greatly mixed results. They generally agreed with the panelists that the devices are good for ready reference and facts, but they cannot process empathy and feelings, so they are not good for many reference questions. The reference transaction is a social interaction; we may lose the opportunity to provide that social connection. Sources are important; how are going to find them? We need to look at how to train these things to be useful. The knowledge resides in us; the future of these devices has a lot to do with what is in our brains.

Here are photos of the devices:

Dan Lou With Dewey the Robot

Dan Lou With Dewey the Robot

 

Dewey the Robot

Dewey the Robot

 

Google Home

Google Home

 

Alexa Dot

Alexa Dot

Peter Morville's Book

Peter Morville’s Book

 

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