I, Robot

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If you've seen the film A.I., you may recall the holographic librarian that provides pivotal information at various points in the story. In this film, where two powerful creative visions collide like madmen dancing, the holographic librarian may not be the most lasting image. However, it speaks of one basic premise of science fiction: In the future, technology will fulfill all of our desires.

When I was in the sixth grade, I went through an intense period of classic science fiction reading. When I was 12, the future loomed so large, I couldn't dream enough of worlds where the walls were interactive information, and entertainment devices and machines handled all of life's unpleasant tasks. My fondness for the genre remains undiminished (though I'm on to the contemporaries); I recently read The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson, in which a grandfather with access to the age's brightest technological minds creates A Young Ladies Illustrated Primer for his granddaughter. When opened, this electronic book bonds with the young lady and becomes a learning tool for her alone. It spins tales suited to the age of the child and to her individual abilities. If, for example, the young lady who cannot read, the primer will first teach her and then progress with her in order to provide valuable knowledge and challenge her in ways this mediated future-world would not.

Eventually the grandfather discovers that the primer—in order to accomplish what he envisioned—has to be more than digital information with cross-referenced links and interactive features. To help the young lady grow up to be a leader, he finds he must employ a full-time "reactive" person who participates in delivering the information via the primer interface.

While Kubrick, in creating his A.I. concept, and Spielberg, in bringing it to fruition on-screen, found little time to explore the life of the holographic librarian—the idea stayed with me while I was reading about the primer. I subsequently saw an article about robots tending the library stacks at Johns Hopkins University and another about deploying these robot librarians. It seems that the main library at Johns Hopkins is running out of room to store new books and research materials and physical expansion in its crowded city neighborhood is almost impossible. As a result, library administrators moved to a storage facility six miles away from much of the material scholars need to do their work. Workers in that facility respond to requests for stored materials by going to the stacks to retrieve stored research for students. Twice daily, the materials are loaded into a van and driven to the main library.

Dissatisfied with this rather cumbersome solution, Hopkins researchers decided to create a robot librarian. And they've already designed a robot that can locate a user-requested book, remove it from the shelf, and carry it to a nearby scanning station. In the final version of this system, the Hopkins' team plans to have a second robot at the scanning station, which would scan specific pages from the book the user is interested in. The user would then be able to browse through the book over the Internet from any location.

Along with providing convenient access to books and journals, systems like this could enable libraries to convert large volumes of printed material into digital format, with robots doing the labor-intensive scanning work. Now, who's going to argue against providing increased access to information? Or against machines providing otherwise time-consuming and mind-numbing labor? One article quoted a Hopkins staff member as saying, "I believe that you're going to see a future of libraries where there isn't as much direct contact with the knowledge and the materials that contain information. Those will be in remote facilities and... libraries will become portals to information resources."

But is information, unattended, knowledge? Leave aside, for the moment, the tactile experience of an ancient book or rare volume, the sense of place and history the binding, paper, even the typeface can provide. Information in and of itself—just floating about waiting for us to pass through it and magically absorb it—is about as useful as asking a holographic librarian to tea. And, as another basic premise of science fiction goes: As we delegate all mundane tasks to automatons to make our lives easier (and arguably better), so will we relegate "the human touch" or even some part of humanity itself. As Spielberg demonstrated in his clumsy computer-aided realization of Kubrick's clumsy psychological vision, just throwing technology at a story will never really bring it to life.