Last week, the computer named Watson took on two of Jeopardy’s all time champions in a two day match. Developed by IBM, the computer was designed with the intent of attempting to respond the unique “answer first” trivia format of the show. It trounced the human opponents on both nights of the challenge and not by small margins either. And with its win, it raised the possibilities of what the computer could do in the next generation.
I was rather surprised at the muted reaction of the librarian blogosphere. With the exception of a post at Henderson Valley Eggs, there wasn’t any sort of commentary. Given the glimpse of capability that the computer like Watson represents, I would have hoped that there would be a bit more excitement about the possible library applications. While Watson is probably not ready for prime time at the reference desk (due to how the program was deconstructing the clues), I could not help but marvel at the potential.
My excitement in getting a computer like Watson in the library is having a tool that can handle known requests (as in “I want Cross Fire by James Patterson” or “What books on biology do you have?”), some harder requests ("I want the movie that came out last year with Stallone in it” or “Can you tell me what order the Lillian Jackson Braun books came out in?”), or just requests that require deep scanning (“It’s a book with a red bicycle on the cover and it’s about an aunt’s suicide”). I’m not sure that the computer would be able to handle all types of requests, but I think on a long enough timeline it would be able to handle complex speech. (I’m trying to imagine if it had Google’s voice recognition data that it gathered from its Goog-4-1-1 information access number; now that would be pretty awesome.) But, in the meantime, I don’t believe there would be shortage of questions it could answer. Think IM, text, and chat questions; it runs a search, shows it to a human operator who approves or corrects, then the reply is sent. The turnaround for easy questions could be under a minute; corrections or harder answers could be not much more.
As I called it a tool, I don’t see it as a replacement for any library staff. As such, I can see it freeing up staff so as they can be able to offer more programs, services, or be able to have time for additional librarian work both at and away from the desk. It’s a great technology and I would hope that one of the future challenges that would Watson’s programmers would take up would be trying to handle reference style questions. For those who may balk at a computer with this kind of capability, I personally feel that it is an inevitable technology; as such, rather than shunning it, it should be embraced and integrated as soon as possible.
I’ve linked the library scene from The Time Machine below as an idea of future capability (even if the hologram needs some serious customer service training).