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One can't watch the YouTube video from Boston Dynamics of the human-like robot, Atlas, parkouring through obstacles ( and not have a twinge of concern at our future coexistence with robots. Robots, AI, and machine learning (ML) raise concerns about our vocational viability as well as long-term impacts on our profession. AI, in its simplest terms, is intelligence exhibited by machines, while ML is a subcategory of AI in which machines perform intelligent tasks without explicit programming.

Despite a reputation as early adopters, some librarians can be considered Luddites. While pursuing my M.L.I.S., I remember learning that the introduction of a new technology called the typewriter deeply divided librarians at the time. Aside from concern about the noise these machines generated, there was debate centered around the superiority of handwriting to machine writing. Some embraced it. I imagine I would have regretfully done so, while lamenting the past. When I was an undergraduate, my wise professor, Dr. Faulds, used to say, "Technology is a mighty tiger while you are riding it, but what happens when you fall off?"

Robots and AI loom as far more disruptive to libraries and our society in general than the quaint typewriter. Many say we are on the verge of a fourth industrial revolution (Figure 1). What we commonly call the Industrial Revolution came with innovations such as textile mills and the harnessing of steam power, beginning in the late 18th century. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, oil, steel, and electricity brought the Second Industrial Revolution. In less than a hundred years, the third wave rose--often called the Digital Revolution--when digital technology replaced analog technology. Of special note was the introduction of the PC in 1980. Many believe that we are now in the fourth industrial revolution, less than 50 years later, driven by AI, robots, and connectivity.

I survived the Digital Revolution, and it dramatically changed my profession and the trajectory of my career. I worked in an unusual field, which may not be apparent from my business card with the odd title, Special Effects Photographer (Figure 2). Back then, Design Network, Inc. was just one of many companies I worked for in St. Louis. There were about 10-12 colleagues who did the same kind of work; collectively, we called ourselves camera jocks.

My colleagues and I created 35mm slides for speech support before PowerPoint and video projectors existed (Figure 3). To make them, we used optical typesetting, high-contrast Kodalith film, and an animation stand designed for movie special effects. Then, Design Network, Inc. purchased Genigraphics, one of the first computer slide-generation systems. When I saw it, I knew it would replace the work I was currently doing. None of my colleagues believed me. "Ha! There's no way that machine can do what we do. Look at the pixelated results," they would say. My gut said something different.

I sat in front of one of the company's computers for the first time armed only with a DOS 3.1 manual and the command line. I've been working with computers ever since. Sure enough, things moved quickly; in about a decade, the slide business--and all the connected support businesses such as type houses--vanished. The expensive Marron Carrel animation stand camera I worked on was now virtually worthless, as were the operational skills I built over many years.

I feel a similar dread now as I watch AI and robots advancing upon us. It's easy to scoff at the notion of being replaced as we see news of a security robot falling into a fountain or reading about an AI system comically mislabeling images. My colleagues laughed at the pixelated slides in the same way. The growing reality is that "tasks that were not so long ago difficult for a computer to complete accurately are now trivial" (Harper 2018). One example is AlphaGo from DeepMind, which beat the best human players at the ancient game Go. Armed only with the rules of the game, this AI learned by playing against itself, creating moves that no human had ever conceived.

There is undoubtedly some space between Skynet dystopia and genuine concern regarding our lack of preparation for the coming disruptions. In looking back at how the desktop computer radically changed the trajectory of my career, I note one crucial aspect: It was a tool that extended my ability to do work. It removed some of the more mundane work tasks and allowed me (eventually) to create and iterate in ways that were impossible before. Many technological tools have given humans a chance to move to higher-level creative tasks. What seems concerning about these new technologies is that they could replace even those higher-level skills.

In Life 3.0, Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Max Tegmark posits the theory that we are on the verge of what he calls Life 3.0 (Figure 4). He defines the three stages of life as "biological evolution, cultural evolution, and technological evolution." Life 1.0 cannot modify its hardware or its software and is dependent on its DNA and iterative evolutionary change. Life 2.0 can additionally modify its software. For example, humans can learn complex languages and reprogram themselves to override evolutionary tendencies. Life 3.0 can additionally redesign its hardware as well without the need to wait through iterative random evolution. Stephen Hawking warned us about this potential in a BBC interview back in 2014, stating that AI "would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate" (Cellan-Jones 2014).

No one can say when or if any of these predictions will come to pass, but there are threats to jobs looming. In his book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford notes that "researchers at the University of Oxford's Martin School conducted a detailed study of over seven hundred US job types and came to the conclusion that nearly fifty percent of jobs will ultimately be susceptible to full machine automation." Consider autonomous vehicles, for example. In the U.S., the top job in nearly 30 of the 50 states is truck driver, according to the Census Bureau as recently as 2014 (Figure 5). Imagine the displacement of those jobs if replaced by machines. Narrative Science offers a product called Quill that can replicate human writing and already generates news stories and can be used to automate writing reports. Some experts predict that "library technicians, library assistants, and librarians could be replaced by robots within twenty years at 99%, 95%, and 65% respectively" (Arlitsch and Newell 2017).

So what are the beneficial aspects of robots and AI for the future of libraries? It is interesting that much of the impetus for our conversations and concerns around the future of libraries initiated around the internet. At first, the relatively small number of sites on the World Wide Web were unorganized and unnavigable. Services such as AltaVista and WebCrawler made efforts to provide search, but with little success. Other sites, such as Yahoo, took the librarian approach of categorizing and organizing the information into topic areas, which was an unsustainable model given the growing size of the web and the resources required. It was the arrival of Google and the PageRank algorithm that began to tame the web, while simultaneously producing predictions that libraries would soon become obsolete. This system with robots that crawled the web organized the information on the internet in ways that humans could not. The truth is, these search algorithms organize content on the web in ways that librarians never could. More importantly, web search platforms such as Google have, in some ways, provided a contextual reference interview, successfully presenting relevant information to the user's needs.

We currently see many libraries moving to robotic retrieval to manage items in the stacks. With this system, a robot brings requested materials from closed-stack storage. New libraries such as the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago and many others are using this model because it frees up space for other purposes. Other uses of robots include the "Autonomous Robotic Shelf Scanning system in Singapore" and Bibli, which has "large, round eyes, a book-shaped sort of head and Roomba-like base" that moves around the stacks assisting and sometimes entertaining patrons (Hoenig 2018). Using AI for chat services is currently growing among libraries, and many vendors are offering products to create chat widgets easily. For those libraries with developers, Amazon Web Services, Google, IBM, and others provide access to their AI platforms to build custom chat systems.

In areas such as scholarly communications, AI is being used to organize information in which systems such as UNSILO "train themselves without human intervention, using a subject-based corpus of content" (Upshall 2017). Services such as Yewno Discovery use ML to provide "the next generation of discovery, facilitating deeper knowledge extraction by connecting disparate yet related concepts through semantic relationships to build a human-like inference engine" (Gramatica and Pickering 2017), described by some as having "taught an algorithm to read" (Plosker 2018). To the degree we can, libraries may choose to assist our patrons by making robots available in makerspaces and providing training in AI and general programming. Hoenig concludes that "helping kids learn coding might be the greatest service we can do for our patrons" (2017).

The challenges posed by robots and AI to our vocation and our very profession seem far more troublesome than the introduction of the typewriter so long ago, but history certainly shows us that we can make room for these innovations while yielding skills for which we are rightfully proud. Despite any Luddite tendency, progress seems inevitable and inescapable. We may need to tolerate noise in our once-quiet spaces and move on to higher human skills. From my own experience, I can say that my current vocation was unimaginable from that distant vantage point sitting in front of that animation stand more than a quarter-century ago. Perhaps our future (hopefully employed) selves will look back on this revolution with similar amazement. Whatever you do, hang on to that tiger.

Figure illustrations by Steven Shelton

Sources and Resources

Arlitsch, Kenning and Bruce Newell. "Thriving in the Age of Accelerations: A Brief Look at the Societal Effects of Artificial Intelligence and the Opportunities for Libraries." Journal of Library Administration, vol. 57, no. 7, 789-798, 2017, DOI: 10.1080/01930826.2017.1362912.

Cellan-Jones, Rory. "Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind." BBC News, BBC, Dec. 2, 2014,

Crowe, Steven. "10 Most Automated Countries in the World." The Robot Report, Feb. 8, 2018,

Ford, Martin. Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2015.

Gramatica, Ruggero and Ruth Pickering. "Yewno: An Al-Driven Path to a Knowledge-Based Future." Insights: The UKSG Journal, vol. 30, no. 2, 107-111, July 2017, EBSCObost, DOI: 10.1629/uksg.369.

Harper, Charlie. "Machine Learning and the Library or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Robot Overlords." Code4Lib Journal, vol. 41, no. 6, 2018, login.aspx?direct=true&db=lxh&AN=131464887&site=ehost-live. Accessed Oct. 31, 2018.

Hoenig, Leah. "Coded to Succeed: A Beginner's Primer to Robots, Kids, and Libraries." Children and Libraries, vol. 16, no. 3, 26-28, fall 2018.

Plosker, George. "Artificial Intelligence Tools for Information Discovery." Online Searcher, vol. 42, no. 3, 31-35, May/June 2018, EBSCObost, ?direct=true&db=lxh&AN=129632291&site=ehost-live.

Sanborn, Lura. "Information Literacy and Instruction: The Future of Academic Librarianship: MOOCs and the Robot Revolution." Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 2, 97-101, winter 2015, EBSCObost, login.aspx?direct=true&db=lxh&AN=111946825&site=ehost-live.

Tegmark, Max. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, first edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Upshall, Michael. '"Genuinely Disruptive' Michael Upshall Discusses the Impact of Machine Learning on Scholarly Communications." Research Information, no. 90, 16-18, June/July 2017.

Steven D. Shelton

( is a digital development librarian at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Library. His current research focuses on robots and AI. He presented recently on the topic at NetSpeed 2017 in Canada and gave a mini keynote at the 2018 Internet Librarian International conference in London. Shelton has worked with computers in IT for nearly 3 decades, web development for about 2, and user experience for libraries over the last 5 years.

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Author:Shelton, Steven D.
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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