Fantastic Futures: My take-aways

shipsThis is the briefest of take-aways from my attendance at Fantastic Futures, a conference on artificial intelligence (AI) in libraries. [1] From the conference announcement introduction:

The Fantastic futures-conferences, which takes place in Oslo december 5th 2018, is a collaboration between the National Library of Norway and Stanford University Libraries, and was initiated by the National Librarian at the National Library of Norway, Aslak Sira Myhre and University Librarian at Stanford University Libraries, Michael Keller.

First of all, I had the opportunity to attend and participate in a pre-conference workshop. Facilitated by Nicole Coleman (Stanford University) and Svein Brygfjeld (National Library of Norway), the workshop’s primary purpose was to ask questions about AI in libraries, and to build community. To those ends the two dozen or so of us were divided into groups where we discussed what a few AI systems might look like. I was in a group discussing the possibilities of reading massive amounts of text and/or refining information retrieval based on reader profiles. In the end our group thought such things were feasible, and we outlined how they might be accomplished. Other groups discussed things such as metadata creation and collection development. Towards the end of the day we brainstormed next steps, and at the very least try to use the ai4lib mailing list to a greater degree. [2]

fortThe next day, the first real day of the conference, was attended by more than a couple hundred of people. Most were from Europe, obviously, but from my perspective about as many were librarians as non-librarians. There was an appearance by Nancy Pearl, who, as you may or may not know, is a Seattle Public Library librarian embodied as an action figure. [3] She was brought to the conference because the National Library of Norway’s AI system is named Nancy. A few notable quotes from some of the speakers, as least from my perspective, included:

  • George Zarkadakis – “Robots ought not to pretend to not be robots.”
  • Meredith Broussard – “AI uses quantitative data but qualitative data is necessary also.”
  • Barbara McGillivray – “Practice the typical research process but annotate it with modeling; humanize the algorithms.”
  • Nicole Coleman – “Put the human in the loop … The way we model data influences the way we make interpretations.”

The presenters generated lively discussion, and I believe the conference was a success by the vast majority of attendees. It is quite likely the conference will be repeated next year and be held at Stanford.

What are some of my take-aways? Hmmm:

  1. Machine learning is simply the latest incarnation of AI, and machine learning algorithms are only as unbiased as the data used to create them. Be forewarned.
  2. We can do this. We have the technology.
  3. There is too much content to process, and AI in libraries can used to do some of the more mechanical tasks. The creation and maintenance of metadata is a good example. But again, be forewarned. We were told this same thing with the advent of word processors, and in the end, we didn’t go home early because we got our work done. Instead we output more letters.
  4. Metadata is not necessary. Well, that was sort of a debate, and (more or less) deemed untrue.

It was an honor and a privilege to attend the pre-conference workshop and conference. I sincerely believe AI can be used in libraries, and the use can be effective. Putting AI into practice will take time, energy, & prioritization. How do this and simultaneously “keep the trains running” will be a challenge. On the other hand, AI in libraries can be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate the inherent worth of cultural heritage institutions. ai4lib++

P.S. Along the way I got to see some pretty cool stuff: Viking ships, a fort, “The Scream”, and a “winterfest”. I also got to experience sunset at 3:30 in the afternoon.

winterfest scream


[1] Fantastic Futures –

[2] ai4lib –!forum/ai4lib

[3] action figure –

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