Martin Hamilton is Jisc's resident Futurist and will be a keynote at this year's ILI Conference 18 – where CILIP members can get a 25 per cent discount on full delegate passes. The event takes place at London's Olympia centre on 16 and 17 October, with a day of workshops taking place on 15 October. Olympia will also host a two-day Taxonomy bootcamp on the 16 and 17 October, and again CILIP members can get a 25 per cent discount on full delegate entry – to book see the end of the article.
Here is an extended version of the interview that appeared in September's Information Professional.
Can you quickly outline your career and how you came to become a futurist with Jisc.
As I kid I was an avid reader. My parents were very poor, but our town had an excellent public library that I practically moved into. Science fiction has always been a particular favourite, so it was a delight to share the bill with Charlie Stross and Ken MacLeod earlier this year at the University of Edinburgh’s Near Future Library Symposium. There’s a fascinating dichotomy around sci-fi that informs much of my work at Jisc – technological and societal trends often creep up on us unnoticed, but then with hindsight it’s perfectly obvious that this or that change was inevitable.
I’ve been lucky enough to work in advanced technology fields for most of my career – from co-writing the first commercially available web OPAC for BLCMP (now TALIS) in the 1990s to running a supercomputer centre for Midlands universities before joining Jisc. I’ve actually been in Jisc’s orbit for a lot of that time, working on Jisc projects and services like the eLib programme and the Janet Web Cache Service. I’ve always thought that Jisc was a great way to share the costs of national infrastructure for research and education, and I feel privileged to lead Jisc’s Future and Emerging Technologies team.
Can you give us your Top 5 things on the horizon that library and information professionals need to know about, and why?
I’m going to be controversial and say that library and information professionals are already very well versed to deal with some of the most important issues of our time. Two stand out for me: helping people to find the information they need amid the vast amounts of data out there on the internet, and, in this age of disinformation, helping people to fact check. The great strength of the internet is that it gives everyone a voice, democratising communication and the flow of information.
Unfortunately, this is also its greatest weakness, unless you know how to tell a fact from an opinion. We are starting to see just how pernicious the latter can really be, with the return of deadly yet preventable diseases like measles – which can be attributed directly to the lies spread by anti-vaxers.
But there are also some things that we aren’t really prepared for. For me, the principal issue is that our society needs citizens to have advanced digital skills if it’s to thrive, but we have a very fragmented picture of how our kids and adult learners will acquire these. It’s a very big leap from basic digital literacy tropes like setting up a blog and managing your social media presence to more advanced topics like pivot tables in Excel. And that’s before we go near the really high-powered stuff – for instance, at a university there will be lots of people who need to learn about stats processing using R. How does an institution go about making this part of its core information literacy provision? Do our libraries need to recruit data scientists?
I also think there is something fascinating going on in our schools with the focus in England on coding as a core skill. Do all our children need to learn to code? Will being forced to learn coding put them off pursuing it as a career? And what about all the other aspects of digital capability that don’t involve coding, but are more about using particular tools effectively - from databases to operating systems, Photoshop to AutoCAD? Most of all, what happens when a generation of hackers and makers that learned to code at school goes to college or university? Our tertiary institutions tend to think in terms of coding as a specialism, but perhaps it’s time to consider how we might build on the schools’ experience. Might we one day make coding or digital literacy more broadly a core pillar of apprenticeships and undergraduate degrees?
Big Data, Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence are all in the headlines – but how do you see them being utilised in libraries and information? Do you believe they will prove to be revolutionary in the profession?
We should be really careful to differentiate between the hype and the reality around new technologies like these. There’s a couple of particular tendencies I’m seeing right now – one is to add blockchain to just about any project to make it seem all magical and sparkly, and the other is to treat just about anything done by a computer as “AI”. These are both quite pernicious trends. The truth is that there are some very interesting potential applications of blockchain, but in most cases people are essentially using blockchain as a database. We’ve had databases for a long time, and we’re quite good at them. Blockchain is like a very slow database that only has a few functions, and in many cases wastes vast amounts of energy carrying out meaningless proof-of-work calculations. We can do a lot better than this. If we get it right, then blockchain could be a really powerful way to track citations and enable code/data re-use.
AI is already all around us, but it’s not the AI we might recognise from our favourite sci-fi stories – most of the major internet services use machine learning and neural networks for things that we take for granted, like recommending users to follow, or products to buy. There are also some interesting and advanced uses of AI in day-to-day use. My favourite is the way that Google Photos automatically classifies the pictures you upload to it, so you can easily find pictures of, say, cats or trees. And yes, you can even search for “cat up a tree”. In the library and information space, I’m cautiously optimistic that, now open access is becoming the norm, we will start to see things like serendipitous discovery of relevant research outputs based on text and data mining.
When thinking about adapting to the future, and adopting new tech and ways of working – can you give us some tips on how to get the best outcome.
Consider the way that the smartphone has slowly but surely become so dominant in our lives. I have a “Dorian Gray drawer” at home where I keep a few of the things that phones have made obsolete. They include a map, compass, camera, Walkman, CD, timetable, tourist guide, postcard and dictionary. I couldn’t fit in the barometer or the spirit level and, of course, there are plenty more. Looking back now it seems quite obvious that people would leap at the opportunity to have all these things at their fingertips, once the technology and connectivity were good enough, but it’s not long at all since companies like Kodak and Blockbuster were the dominant players in their fields and the idea of a pocket supercomputer giving access to all the world’s information would have seemed totally unrealistic.
When it comes to new technologies like AI, my challenge for library and information professionals is to look around and picture how they could be used to innovate and improve the services that are already on offer. Going back to my visit to the University of Edinburgh, I was very excited to hear about uCreate Studio, the university’s maker space, based in the main library. In an era when public library budgets are increasingly stretched, does it make sense for universities and colleges to collaborate with councils on initiatives like The Hive in Worcester?
What are you most excited about from Jisc’s research lab?
In the last couple of years, we’ve started to move a lot closer to the sci-fi conception of AI, with the growth of digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa (now deployed across Leeds Beckett University) and AI-based chatbots like Bolton College’s pioneering Ada. Crucially, you must sign into Ada, which means that it knows truly personal information like lecture timetables, when assignments are due in, and so on. This opens the door for the AI to be something akin to a personal coach. We’re running a series of workshops this autumn on AI chatbots with some of the leading technology vendors and pioneering institutions that have been rolling out these technologies to their learners.
This is part of a broader programme of work that’s looking at how research and education can respond to the challenges of what World Economic Forum chair Klaus Schwab terms the “fourth industrial revolution”: what happens to our societies, economies and institutions when technologies like AI, augmented and virtual reality and bio-engineering become the norm? Some of those technologies are right here on our doorstep, as I’ve noted here. Others are still some way off, but will be real game changes, like DNA-based data storage. I’ll be speaking about all of this at the Internet Librarian conference in October. Do come along to hear more and share your thoughts!
ILI and TBCL
Internet Librarian International 2018:The Library Innovation Conference
Six conference tracks to choose from:
- Cultivating knowledge communities, Katherine Skinner, Executive Director, Educopia Institute, USA
- Fantastic future? Predicting promise and peril Martin Hamilton, Futurist, Jisc, UK
Taxonomy Boot Camp London 2018
- Future focus: the next-gen library, the next-gen librarian
- Understanding users, usage and UX
- Inclusion and inspiration: libraries making a difference
- Content, collections and collaborations
- Magical marketing
- New learning and new scholarly communications
Co-located alongside ILI at Olympia London, Taxonomy Boot Camp London takes place on 16 and 17 October 2018 and Boot Camp delegates will join ILI delegates for breaks and networking. TBCL is designed for organisations using or evaluating taxonomies to drive data, content and information processes.
Discounts for CILIP Members
CILIP members are entitled to claim a 25 per cent discount on fees for ILI using code CILIP25 when registering. Discounts are also available for multiple delegates from the same organisation.
Members of CILIP K&IM are entitled to claim a 25 per cent discount on fees for Taxonomy Boot Camp London using code KIM25.
Further information from organisers at Information Today