Monday, April 08, 2019

I, too, want answers

Around 1966-67 I worked on the reference desk at my local public library. For those too young to remember, this was a time when all information was in paper form, and much of that paper was available only at the library. The Internet was just a twinkle in the eye of some scientists at DARPA, and none of us had any idea what kind of information environment was in our future.* The library had a card catalog and the latest thing was that check-outs were somehow recorded on microfilm, as I recall.

As you entered the library the reference desk was directly in front of you in the prime location in the middle of the main room. A large number of library users went directly to the desk upon entering. Some of these users had a particular research in mind: a topic, an author, or a title. They came to the reference desk to find the quickest route to what they sought. The librarian would take them to the card catalog, would look up the entry, and perhaps even go to the shelf with the user to look for the item.**

There was another type of reference request: a request for facts, not resources. If one wanted to know what was the population of Milwaukee, or how many slot machines there were in Saudia Arabia***, one turned to the library for answers. At the reference desk we had a variety of reference materials: encyclopedias, almanacs, dictionaries, atlases. The questions that we could answer quickly were called "ready reference." These responses were generally factual.

Because the ready reference service didn't require anything of the user except to ask the question, we also provided this service over the phone to anyone who called in. We considered ourselves at the forefront of modern information services when someone would call and ask us: "Who won best actor in 1937?" OK, it probably was a bar bet or a crossword puzzle clue but we answered, proud of ourselves.

I was reminded of all this by a recent article in Wired magazine, "Alexa, I Want Answers."[1] The argument as presented in the article is that what people REALLY want is an answer; they don't want to dig through books and journals at the library; they don't even want an online search that returns a page of results; what they want is to ask a question and get an answer, a single answer. What they want is "ready reference" by voice, in their own home, without having to engage with a human being. The article is about the development of the virtual, voice-first, answer machine: Alexa.

There are some obvious observations to be made about this. The glaringly obvious one is that not all questions lend themselves to a single, one sentence answer. Even a question that can be asked concisely may not have a concise answer. One that I recall from those long-ago days on the reference desk was the question: "When did the Vietnam War begin?" To answer this you would need to clarify a number of things: on whose part? US? France? Exactly what do you mean by begin? First personnel? First troops? Even with these details in hand experts would differ in their answers.

Another observation is that in the question/answer method over a voice device like Alexa, replying with a lengthy answer is not foreseen. Voice-first systems are backed by databases of facts, not explanatory texts. Like a GPS system they take facts and render them in a way that seems conversational. Your GPS doesn't reply with the numbers of longitude and latitude, and your weather app wraps the weather data in phrases like: "It's 63 degrees outside and might rain later today." It doesn't, however, offer a lengthy discourse on the topic. Just the facts, ma'am.[3]

It is very troubling that we have no measure of the accuracy of these answers. There are quite a few anecdotes about wrong answers (especially amusing ones) from voice assistants, but I haven't seen any concerted studies of the overall accuracy rate. Studies of this nature were done in the 1970's and 1980's on library reference services, and the results were shocking. Even though library reference was done by human beings who presumably would be capable of detecting wrong answers, the accuracy of answers hovered around 50-60%.[2] Repeated studies came up with similar results, and library journals were filled with articles about this problem. The  solution offered was to increase training of reference staff. Before the problem could be resolved, however, users who previously had made use of "ready reference" had moved on to in-sourcing their own reference questions by using the new information system: the Internet. If there still is ready reference occuring in libraries, it is undoubtedly greatly reduced in the number of questions asked, and it doesn't appear that studying the accuracy is on our minds today.

I have one final observation, and that is that we do not know the source(s) of the information behind the answers given by voice assistants. The companies behind these products have developed databases that are not visible to us, and no source information is given for individual answers. The voice-activated machines themselves are not the main product: they are mere user interfaces, dressed up with design elements that make them appealing as home decor. The data behind the machines is what is being sold, and is what makes the machines useful. With all of the recent discussion of algorithmic bias in artificial intelligence we should be very concerned about where these answers come from, and we should seriously consider if "answers" to some questions are even appropriate or desirable.

Now, I have question: how is it possible that so much of our new technology is based on so little intellectual depth? Is reductionism an essential element of technology,  or could we do better? I'm not going to ask Alexa**** for an answer to that.

[1] Vlahos, James. “Alexa, I Want Answers.” Wired, vol. 27, no. 3, Mar. 2019, p. 58. (Try EBSCO)
[2] Weech, Terry L. “Review of The Accuracy of Telephone Reference/Information Services in Academic Libraries: Two Studies.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 54, no. 1, 1984, pp. 130–31.

* The only computers we saw were the ones on Star Trek (1966), and those were clearly a fiction.
** This was also the era in which the gas station attendent pumped your gas, washed your windows, and checked your oil while you waited in your card.
*** The question about Saudia Arabia is one that I actually got. I also got the one about whether there were many "colored people" in Haiti. I don't remember how I answered the former, but I do remember that the user who asked the latter was quite disappointed with the answer. I think he decided not to go.
**** Which I do not have; I find it creepy even though I can imagine some things for which it could be useful.

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