Quantum Computing, Lack of Corporate Transparency Lead Top Tech Trends | ALA Annual 2018

A group of experts discussed emerging, library-relevant technology trends ranging from Quantum Computers to the deployment of digital libraries in public housing developments during the Library and Information Technology Association’s Top Tech Trends panel at ALA Annual 2018

Within the next decade, quantum computers may be able to break public key encryption as it stands now, intercepting any data sent online over HTTPS and other types of encrypted connections, noted Jason Bengtson. Bengtson assistant director, Library IT Services, Kansas State University Libraries, spoke at the Library Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Technology Trends panel at the American Library Association’s annual conference in New Orleans.

Standard computers have always relied on binary digits—the ones and zeros that are the smallest units of information, or bits, that these machines process and store. Quantum bits, or qubits, can represent a one, a zero, or a superposition of those states, theoretically enabling a quantum computer to solve problems that are unfeasible for the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

In a 2017 Scientific American article by Neil Savage, “Quantum Computers Compete for Supremacy,” John Preskill, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, says that “at somewhere around 49 or 50 qubits, quantum computers reach the equivalent of about 10 quadrillion bits and become capable of calculations no classical computer could ever match.”

Google announced four months ago that it had developed a 72-qubit processor, and the company is currently in a race with IBM, Microsoft, and others to scale and harness the power of this emerging technology. As exciting as this may be, Bengtson noted that such a substantial outpacing of current digital infrastructure could cause major near-term issues—specifically with current encryption technology.

“This is potentially a significant problem,” he said. “Right now a lot of folks…are working on new types of asymmetric encryption to beat this problem,” and solutions will likely need to employ quantum computing as well.

Bengtson was joined on the panel by Laura Cole, director of BiblioTech; Justin de la Cruz, unit head, E-Learning Technology, Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library; Marydee Ojala, editor-in-chief, Online Searcher: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies; Reina Williams, reference librarian and education coordinator, Rush University Medical Center Library; and moderator Marshall Breeding, consultant, author, and founder of librarytechnology.org.

DEATH OF TRANSPARENCY

Search engines sort results using increasingly complex algorithms that take into account not only general relevancy, but also a user’s past search history and other factors. But many users are unaware that their search results are personalized, and the lack of transparency poses challenges for educators and information professionals, noted Ojala.

“In the web search world, companies like Google and Microsoft give us algorithm-based search results, but they don’t tell us what the algorithms are—[they are] proprietary,” she said. “They also change all the time. Google for example has about 200 signals that it uses to determine relevancy; they don’t tell us what those are.”

Ojala continued: “This is an issue that you probably all [in the audience] have faced, when you’re trying to teach something about search, and everybody in the room has different answers because the algorithms are different, depending on personalization. It might be the device they’re using, it might be the browser they’re using, it might be Google hiccupping. We don’t know.”

When teaching information literacy, librarians should be aware—and make patrons and students aware—that “the death of transparency will affect the answers that we’re getting,” she said. “What’s really disturbing…if machines are learning from biased information, those results will be biased by definition…. And, as we all know, there’s a very disturbing trend toward false information. We hear it as ‘fake news,’ but it’s not just the news—it’s fraudulent research, it’s Photoshopped images, it’s data that has been mislabeled, it’s ‘deep fake’ [videos]…. Think of [deep fakes] as Photoshop for your voice.”

DATA PLAN

De la Cruz also expressed concerns about the lack of transparency from corporations, which are collecting ever-more-detailed data on customers and potential customers.

Discussing the concept of “psychometrics,” he said, “as people share more information on social media, companies are able to gather more information and market services, but also change public beliefs…actions, and thoughts. I feel like, with every new technology that comes out, we have to assume that it’s tracking something. …. We have to understand that it’s happening everywhere, all the time.”

Corporations are no longer just tracking trends by large demographics—the prototypical 18-to-35 year-old males who live in large cities, for example, he said. “It’s gotten to a hyper level where [companies are] tracking everything we’re sharing. It’s more like ‘Asian-American white male in his early 30s who lives in Atlanta and enjoys ’90s hip hop, East Coast, and runs in the park on Wednesdays and Saturdays—you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not—and how would [he] respond to an initiative to update public transportation in that city?’ That level of granularity is really exciting in one sense and really scary in another.”

Libraries, de la Cruz said, must find a balance on three different points: being proactive on how data is gathered and used in library environments; being transparent with patrons regarding how any data collected by the library is being used; and understanding how patrons—who are already leaking personal information to companies via social media and other online services—are affected by those third parties when they use library equipment and services.

BUILD YOUR OWN

After briefly outlining the shortcomings of current learning management systems (LMS), Williams discussed the potential of alternative solutions and the next generation of LMS.

“What we’re thinking about is students in a free space—giving them web space, letting them build their own sites,” she said. “I’m sure some librarians may be doing this…having the students build blogs through WordPress or Google Sites. You’re having the students build the content. A lot of instructors…are teaching outside of the prescribed learning management system because of issues delivering content.”

As an example, Williams described the “Domain of One’s Own” initiative at the University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA. Students, faculty, and staff have the opportunity to register their own domain name and use hosted web space free of charge while at UMW.

The concept could be deployed outside of higher education settings as well, she said.

“Building from scratch, letting students interact, not just in higher-ed, but K–12. What are we going to make possible for them to learn in an online format?”

DIGITALLY ON SITE

Cole discussed how the growth of digital content is enabling libraries to have an outsized impact in offsite locations, such as public housing developments.

“At its best, technology serves the library by serving its core mission,” she said. “You probably recognize that we have an ever-increasing disparity [of wealth] and an income gap within this country. Public housing authorities all over the country are working at ways to provide broadband access, technology access, to provide technology education for their residents…. By embedding public libraries within public housing, we are able to meet this need…in a way that we’ve never had an opportunity to do before.”

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Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com, @matthewenis on Twitter, matthewenis.com) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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