Technical singularity and the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany

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When technologies arrive on the market, not only are most libraries interested; they also test a few and integrate them in selected applications and projects, writes Rafael Ball.

If revolutions are heralded, however, most libraries are cautious or even sceptical. In principle, this is not a bad thing, either, as many a (technical) revolution has turned out to be a big bluff or even a pure flight of fancy. The whole story only becomes trickier when new technologies and revolutions appear to call the future of libraries into question. By then at the latest, it is time to take a closer look at these things and build a well-founded opinion on them.

One such idea, which, for many people, is still a far cry away or even belongs in the realms of science fiction, is technical singularity, namely all the concepts that play at a point in time if machines become more intelligent than people – with all the consequences that this entails.

What this means for libraries and their services remains to be seen.

Whether libraries will still play a role in technical singularity might currently still be a question for the future and so far off that we don’t need to ponder it yet. Actually, however, libraries already perform services that use machines to render results more intelligent than human thought.

Anyone who generates insights by combining (freely) available data and reveals patterns that would not have been achieved through intellectual reasoning, for instance, has already made a contribution to machine intelligence. And this is merely the beginning.

The use of digitised and digitally born materials and data for a new combination of knowledge is in full swing. The previous mechanisms of the classical reception of the written word, citation when it is re-used and its incorporation into new knowledge components could be coming to an end.

Once again, art – and especially music and the understanding of its works here – is one step ahead: the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany has just authorised the permission-free use of samples for artistic design and does not see an infringement into copyright and ancillary protection rights for much longer. After all, the digital world allows the re-composition of contents and the creation of new patterns without any complex “copying” and citation.

Also and especially in science, digital recombination can be meaningful and the contents of previous fragments of knowledge yield insights that have not been possible until now. The hope remains that this will no longer be prohibited in future and that science will gain a sizeable slice of freedom as a result.

This also reveals where the journey of open science is really heading: namely way beyond uptight open access discussions, where contracts and licenses are scoured with bookkeeping pettiness, formalists compile unbearable Excel tables and this is sold as a transformation of the publishing industry.

The journey of open science is leading into a bright future of truly free science, where results are freely accessible and publication and reception will no longer be commercial products for the purpose of maximising corporate profits. And this future is a lot closer than technical singularity.

Rafael Ball is director of the ETH Library in Zurich, Switzerland