King County Library System explores the artificial intelligence frontier

If asked for a show of hands in tech-savvy King County, many would know what the term “artificial intelligence” means. But some may not.

Also known as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) has been around for decades, yet experts in the technology industry and academia are still working out the kinks as new applications are being rapidly developed. A recent Gallup poll found that 85 percent of Americans are already using consumer products that employ AI elements, such as ride-sharing apps or voice-controlled personal assistants like Siri and Alexa. Which is why the King County Library System (KCLS) is exploring AI to ensure that the public is empowered by this new wave of technology that mimics humans’ ability to make decisions or perform tasks.

Through a grant secured by the King County Library System Foundation, KCLS will look at the feasibility of an AI application for library users that can interface with voice recognition systems like Alexa and Siri. KCLS will partner with ConverSight.ai to run a pilot program with up to 50,000 KCLS patrons, and will also host focus groups to explore community and staff perspectives on how conversational AI could be used to enhance library services and resources. The grant allows KCLS to continue to explore innovative ways to serve patrons, and increase digital equity and access to library resources.

On a national level, both the American Library Association and the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) are surfacing AI and digital citizenship initiatives to ensure that libraries are not only at the table, but have a prominent voice in the conversation as AI continues to transform modern technology. In January 2019, I was asked to participate in a working group of library leaders from across the United States and Canada to discuss opportunities for libraries to collaborate in order to get ahead of the potential risks presented by AI and to maximize the technology’s potential for the public good.

Public libraries – as respected thought leaders, trusted sources of reliable information, and champions of free and open access – are well equipped to address not only the benefits of AI but also the challenges, including concerns about privacy of personal data on smart devices. Establishing strategic partnerships with technical experts in the AI field that share the library’s values will enhance the collective impact of this emerging technology as new applications are developed.

KCLS’ reputation for innovative programs and services now extends to the virtual world. We are excited to play a part in what lies ahead.

Lisa Rosenblum is director of the King County Library System.

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