Blogs > Cliopatria > Next Step: Historians

Jul 21, 2004 8:29 pm


Next Step: Historians



I admit that I am a techno-geek. I also spend approx. 4 hours a day in the stacks here at Regenstein. So, this news about robotic librarians has me drooling for the last hour:
It can read the labels and the position of the book using its image processing and optical character recognition software," the professor said. Once the book is located, it has to grasp it and take it off the bookshelf, which is not a simple as it might seem. For this, the team had to develop special fingertips like a nails, with one nail longer than the other.
Professor Pobil said it was a"real possibility" that teams of robots could, in about five years' time, realistically perform searching and fetching tasks. They could even mill around doing their work at night, working on library inventories, or identifying missing books, or mapping libraries.

I don't see this impacting the role of the librarian but the work of hundreds of work-study students. My question is how will the OCR treat non-English text? And will this intervention of the AI give us newer ways of cataloguing and stacking? Like towers of books reaching skyhigh...

And as to my reference to Historians....
2. Take the algorithm that runs Google News which aggregates information without any human intervention.
+ 2. Add to it Amazon's A9 engine which has hundreds of thousands of books scanned.
= Wait patiently for the AI to improve for the next 5 years.
4. Voilá. A Historian Engine that can process through any set of academic data and spit out a rational, logical arrangement of facts and analysis. No?
Ok. I know I am reaching here but given that most mechanical jobs have or will soon be lost to robotic industry, how long before the Ivory Tower comes under seige? Do the publishing industry really needs a Ph.D. to come out with A Quick Guide to Irish History when a program can arrange the facts into a simple narrative?
We already have the AI to piss off republicans.


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Jonathan Dresner - 7/22/2004

Actually, a lot depends on the kind of programming involved. I could imagine an AI historian that was exceptionally good at noting anomalous and exceptional data, which is often what triggers our interesting questions (Isaac Asimov said that most discoveries arise not out of 'Eureka' but out of 'That's odd....'), but to be a good historian it would then have to construct a new pattern/paradigm/narrative that included the new datum.

One problem "knowledge management" (yes, they already exist; I've read descriptions of intra-corporate systems which attempted to encapsulate all the procedural knowledge of their employees [making the employees enter data on any new procedure or decision], so that losing an employee did not mean losing any institutional knowledge) systems will have if they try to address the messes of human history is going to be the evaluation of data: contradictory and biased sources. No, they can't just be coded "Republican" or "probably wrong": we all use sources that are inconsistent and biased and sometimes you have to use them creatively and counterintuitively.

I could see a database/encyclopedia from which one could construct a "history to order" based on keywords and boundary conditions. But, as Ralph points out, it will not be original (I don't think we can program something to not plagiarize yet). We still haven't actually cracked the language barrier yet with AI. We can construct limited algorithms, but nobody has successfully linked them to knowledge bases, nor are they truly creative.

Maybe it'll come; around the same time that the professorial role becomes limited to monitoring on-line individual learning modules and supervising the construction and installation of new ones based on previous models.


Manan Ahmed - 7/21/2004

key word..."occasionally". :)


Ralph E. Luker - 7/21/2004

I suppose that we can program a robot so that it will _not_ plagiarize -- I suppose -- but can we program to think critically about data or will it simply reproduce data? I am skeptical about whether a robot will ever produce one of those breath-takingly dramatic challenges to received wisdom that human historians occasionally generate.

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