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Jacob Lawrence’s The Library

March 22, 2011

The Library


Held Hostage By Media

March 2, 2011

New media allow us to escape from old environments, but soon imprison us in new environments, namely themselves.

Edmund Carpenter, Anthropologist,  Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!

Our Dear Watson

February 28, 2011

Photo: Flickr user jntolva

I finally got around to watching the Nova special on Watson, the IBM computer that has become a Jeopardy champion.  I’ve got to admit I’ve become a little bit obsessed with Watson, and artificial intelligence, and this notion that we have started to enter an age where science fiction is no longer fiction, but a reality.

The show was pretty fascinating, and provides a brief look into how they got Watson to be able to answer such difficult questions, full of subtle word play and covering such a wide range of topics. Here’s some information that I pulled from not the Nova special, but a video on the IBM website, on how the DeepQA technology that is behind Watson works:

  • We do not anticipate all questions and build databases.
  • We do not attempt to build a formal model of the world.
  • Focus is on reusable NLP [Natural Language Processing] technology for analyzing vast volumes of as-is text [encylopedias, plays, dictionaries, books, etc.; information as it already exists].  Structured sources (DBs and KBs [databases and knowledge bases]) provide background knowledge for interpreting the text.
  • DeepQA generates and scores many hypotheses using an extensible collection of Natural Language Processing, Machine Learning, and Reasoning Algorithms.  These gather and weigh evidence over both unstructured and structured content to determine the answer with the best confidence.

All the work that went into the creation of this machine completely blows my mind.  I’ve had some people ask me why I’m so fascinated with Watson:  isn’t it just a computer that can play Jeopardy?  But it’s really so much more than that.  The potential applications of this technology are incredible.  Right now, we can question Google, but Google can only point us to sources that may hold potential answers.  We then have to view the material that Google has found and use our minds to determine whether an answer exists within that material.  With technology such as DeepQA, a question would yield an actual answer, not just a set of results.

I found a TED video that discusses the future of Watson and which featured a Columbia University professor who is examining how this technology can be used in the medical field.  The computer would serve as a diagnostic assistant for doctors; it would examine patient history, symptoms, and parse huge databases of medical literature to offer a set of possible diagnoses and probabilities for each.  This is only one of the many potential business applications.

But while I am absolutely amazed by this technology, and am extremely excited to see what developments are made in this field over the next several years, I won’t deny that the potential power of this technology frightens me a bit.  If we are teaching machines to think, does that mean that we will have less reason to use our own minds?  For example, what need is there for a doctor to go to four years of medical school,  if a computer can tell us what a patient’s diagnosis is?  Why spend time reading the latest medical literature if the computer can read it for us?  The Columbia professor on the TED panel said that he could not see having Watson face off against medical residents, as there was no way that the residents could win against Watson.  That is a scary prospect.

Of course, what Watson will lack is the human touch.  Decision makers must be careful to value that which only a flesh and blood doctor can provide.  Abraham Verghese, in a great New York Times op-ed, writes, “An answer that might have been posed on ‘Jeopardy!’ is, ‘An emergency treatment that is administered by ear.’ I wonder if Watson would have known the question (though he will now, cybertroller that he is), which is, ‘What are words of comfort?'”

To the Great Youth of Egypt,

February 26, 2011

Thank you for protecting the Alexandria library!  On Thursday, the library reopened after closure during the revolution (a 18-day revolution!). During this time, youth guarded the library to protect it from vandalism.  The library’s website has posted some amazing photos of the library during this time.  I can only hope that the American people would do the same to our great libraries under similar circumstances.

The Quest for a Better Answer

February 19, 2011

Photo: Flickr user walknbosto

I’ve always thought Q&A sites were doomed to fail.  Who has the time to sit around and answer questions in a timely, quality manner (a la reference librarians) for free?

Sure, every once and a while I type a question into Google and find myself on Yahoo Answers or  But I always find myself disappointed.  Yes, sometimes there’s a hint of something good in somebody’s response, but even then I never have any idea who is providing me with the answer.  How am I supposed to trust an online personality represented by a cartoon-like avatar and some dumb screename like “i luv penguins”?   And if I have an original question that hasn’t yet been answered on one of these sites, I lack the patience to wait for somebody to respond.  I prefer to actively run web searches on the topic.

However, it’s obvious that not everyone has given up on these sites yet.  A NY Times article recently described a new round of Q & A sites that are being pumped out, including Quora.  While this site attempts to solve the issue of credibility, it hasn’t solved the issue of response speed, and David Pogue writes that usability of the site is poor.  Pogue prefers Aardvark, a site that was recently bought up by Google, but in my experience, the site is also plagued by slow response time.

And so, my own opinion is that these sites aren’t going to truly work until the Semantic Web emerges.  Until then, Q&A sites may improve, but will not give us exactly what we want.

“I Was Abducted by Aliens…”

February 12, 2011

While browsing an old issue of Harper’s Magazine last night, reading the Harper’s Index, I came across the following statistics:

  • Number of overdue books returned last year to the San Francisco Public Library during a two-week “fine amnesty”: 29,228
  • Number of years a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman had been overdue: 45

Amazing!  And so this morning, I did a little web searching.  For two weeks in May 2009, the SFPL held a Overdue Fine Amnesty Program campaign, “Return the Books.”  The value of the returned materials during this period was nearly $79,000!  To encourage participation, library users were encouraged to submit their own excuses for overdue books.  One reader wrote, “I was abducted by aliens, they just brought me back after 2 months.”

Why spend the money to purchase new materials when there may be a chance that those materials aren’t being returned because of fine accrual?  And why work to get new users into the library when the reason the old users aren’t coming in is because of incurred fines that prohibit usage?

Of course, this isn’t something that could happen on an annual basis.  Users would get too comfortable with the idea that another amnesty would be around the corner.  Sporadically, however, it’s brilliant!

Info Mapping

February 9, 2011

We are by now well into a phase of civilization when the terrain to be mapped, explored, and annexed is information space, and what’s mapped is not continents, regions, or acres but disciplines, ontologies, and concepts. We need representations in order to navigate this new world, and those representations need to be computable, because the computer mediates our access to this world, and those representations need to be produced at first-hand, by someone who knows the terrain. If, where the humanities should be represented, we in the humanities scrawl, or allow others to scrawl, »Here be dragons«, then we will have failed. We should not refuse to engage in representation simply because we feel no representation can do justice to all that we know or feel about our territory. That’s too fastidious. We ought to understand that maps are always schematic and simplified, but those qualities are what make them useful.

Prof. Dr. John Unsworth, University of Virginia, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, What is Humanities Computing and What is Not?