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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


Research by Robot
January/February 2014 Issue

Robots are trendy. You can vacuum with an iRobot Roomba and soon you’ll be able to scrub floors with Scooba. Robot surgeons such as DaVinci are aiding and even replacing surgeons (although their safety track record leaves something to be desired). Manufacturing lines for many industries are staffed robotically. SigFig’s robots provide personal financial planning. The U.S. Department of Defense funds academic research to develop robots as first responders. Libraries use robots to shelve and retrieve books.

Google bought its eighth robot company, Boston Dynamics, in December. Andy Rubin, developer of Android, heads Google’s robotics unit. Google is investigating robots for manufacturing, filming, and elder care, plus Google’s driverless cars initiative. What does this mean for search? Can information professionals be replaced by robots?

Our fascination with robots is grounded in popular culture, yet there’s no consistent portrayal. Robby the Robot (“Welcome to Altair IV, gentlemen”; Forbidden Planet) was, mostly, helpful. Marvin (“brain the size of a planet”; Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) was paranoid. HAL (“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”; 2001) became a destroying force until deactivated. These are large, humanoid robots. But tiny robots and their close cousins, algorithms, are already present in our lives, both personal and professional. Robotics are a feature in library makerspaces, providing all the tools people need to build their own robots. Standard are open source Arduino microcontrollers, Vex robotics kits, and LEGOs.

Big Data has spurred several algorithmic initiatives. Election outcomes can be predicted from analyzing data rather than exit polls or pundit prophesies. Illnesses, such as the flu, can be tracked through geotagged tweets on Twitter. Tweets can also be predictors of stock prices. Taken to extremes, these algorithms could persuade people not to vote, to avoid areas where they are likely to become sick, and to invest in companies whose share prices will rise. That’s putting a lot of trust in algorithms.

What about robots taking the jobs of humans? That’s already happened in manufacturing, but can robots perform intellectual endeavors or only tasks requiring brute force? Can they provide search results equal to or better than an information professional? Some news stories are written programmatically by Journatic. Narrative Science’s Quill artificial intelligence engine collects and analyzes data, identifies key insights, and writes reports. Sound familiar? It’s a new dimension to the man versus machine debate.

Web search results differ depending on your geographic location, your prior search activity, your browser, your device, and other algorithmically determined factors. If web search becomes totally optimized for shopping and entertainment, it’s professional researchers who lose out. We benefit from robotic analysis of Big Data but not from search algorithms that ignore the nuances of serious research.

Although it’s unlikely that, in the future, a robot will serve you breakfast, let alone cook it for you, it’s probable that your search results will be served algorithmically with some robot intervention. Will this serve information professionals well or do we need to stage an intervention of our own to restore the human element of search?

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She has contributed feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Internet Librarian International, Computers in Libraries, and national library meetings worldwide. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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