Disruptive Technologies & Library Automation

by Jamie Baker

In 2013, McKinsey released a report on the 12 disruptive technologies that have the greatest potential to drive substantial economic impact and disruption by 2025. Quite a few of the forecasted disruptive technologies will have a large impact on the way that people access information:

  • Automation of knowledge work: Intelligent software systems that can perform knowledge work tasks involving unstructured commands and subtle judgments
  • The Internet of Things: Networks of low-cost sensors and actuators for data collection, monitoring, decision making, and process optimization
  • Mobile Internet: Increasingly inexpensive and capable mobile computing devices and Internet connectivity
  • Cloud technology: Use of computer hardware and software resources delivered over a network or the Internet, often as a service

Recently, The Wall Street Journal asked, is your job creative enough to resist robot automation?

According to [a] report, Creativity versus Robots, written by Nesta … [j]obs that are highly susceptible to computerization … [include] … office administrators, call-center staff, librarians, cattle and crop farmers, loggers, miners, car salesmen and hotel staff.

In libraries, we already have automated materials handling where machines sorts books for reshelving. In law libraries, in particular, we will eventually take a giant leap forward with “Ross.” According to The Globe and Mail, a class project-turned-startup launched by University of Toronto students that uses IBM’s artificially intelligent Watson computer to do legal research now has backing from Dentons, the world’s largest law firm. Called Ross, the app uses Watson to scour millions of pages of case law and other legal documents in seconds and answer legal questions. Its developers liken it to a smarter version of iPhone’s Siri, but for lawyers, and say it could one day replace some of the grunt research work now done by low-level associates at the world’s top law firms. It is one of several attempts to apply what is called “cognitive computing” to the historically technology-averse legal profession.

And Ross is learning quickly. According to one of the developers,

What we are seeing is Ross grasping and understanding legal concepts and learning based on the questions and also getting user feedback. … Just like a human, it’s getting its experience in a law firm and being able to learn and get better.

While at AALL in Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of attending Kyla Moran’s presentation on IBM’s Watson. One thing that struck me was the difference between intelligence amplification or augmentation (IA) and artificial intelligence (AI). Ms. Moran likened it to Ironman’s JARVIS v. Terminator. Ms. Moran commented that Watson is augmented intelligence—it makes us smarter. And IBM is not trying to overtake humans with machines.

From Wikipedia:

Intelligence amplification (IA) (also referred to as cognitive augmentation and machine augmented intelligence) refers to the effective use of information technology in augmenting human intelligence.

IA is sometimes contrasted with AI (Artificial Intelligence), that is, the project of building a human-like intelligence in the form of an autonomous technological system such as a computer or robot. AI has encountered many fundamental obstacles, practical as well as theoretical, which for IA seem moot, as it needs technology merely as an extra support for an autonomous intelligence that has already proven to function.

Augmented intelligence will be our reality in the very near future. Computers will aid us in our capability to retrieve relevant results in the age of big data. This will eventually have major ramifications for legal research. As mentioned in the WSJ post, we will likely replace much of the grunt research like finding particular statutes or cases by citation. But it takes a certain cognitive creativity to form advanced legal arguments, and much of this creativity is what drives legal research. While there’s no telling where Ross might end up on that spectrum, we are still quite a ways off from that type of artificial intelligence (not to mention that there are many issues to be worked out with Ross storing and using proprietary information).

There is no denying that Ross will augment our work, but Ross will not replace the need for law librarians to teach law students how to research and bridge the gap while using Ross. We won’t be in a position anytime soon to be completely replaced by computers, and I would submit that legal research takes the type of creative cognitive reasoning that might make it impervious to total automation.


About Jamie Baker

Jamie Baker is the Interim Director of the Law Library at Texas Tech University School of Law. She also teaches Civil Trial Research. She blogs at www.gingerlawlibrarian.com.
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