Robots at the Help Desk?

What should information professionals make of the recent report predicting that robots will soon become as commonplace as the Internet? Or the news of the first successful test of a gun made entirely from the 3-D printing process, which fired a .380 caliber bullet into a pile of dirt and brush (and which exploded on its next test, using a different caliber bullet)?

On its face, neither development is of much import. The report notes that in the short term, robots will have the greatest impact in national defense, space exploration, and manufacturing, three sectors in which they are already widely used. The gun test, meanwhile, left its brainchild, a 25-year-old law student and self-described anarchist, disappointed with the results (not so Rep. Steve Israel, who reacted to the test by calling for revisions to the Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans any firearm that doesn’t trigger a metal detector).

What is important about the report and the gun test is what they represent: new wrinkles in the changing relationship between people and technology. And while both developments may seem ominous for information professionals–the former because it heralds the rise of yet another technology that could perform some tasks traditionally performed by librarians, the latter because it marks another example of people doing for themselves what they used to rely on others to do for them–both also hold promise as well.

That’s the view of Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of Race Against the Machine (Digital Frontier Press 2011). Brynjolfsson’s research passion is the relationship between humans and machines, and he refuses to see technology vs. humanity as a zero-sum game.

“Machines aren’t perfect or even very good substitutes for humans in some areas,” he said recently in an interview with McKinsey. “But by working together, by racing with machines, we can do more than the machines by themselves or humans by themselves could do.”

To learn more about what Brynjolfsson has to say about people and technological developments (including big data, which he puts “at the top or near the top of the list” of innovations that will have dramatic impacts over the next 5-10 years), listen to the interview or read the edited transcript.

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