Let’s build a monolith

We are one step away from the Star Trek Computer, the 2001 Monolith, whatever we call it

When Ahmed Saloum Boularaf opened his library to a reporter of The Christian Science Monitor, he wanted to share his fear with the entire world. Holding a rare, nearly 800 years old manuscript, he complained that if nothing is done to copy and preserve his collection, more than 1700 other manuscripts could be lost forever. Worse, Mister Boularaf lives in Tombouctou, Mali, where islamists related to Al Qaeda burnt libraries before leaving the city, pushed up north by french soldiers last february. Fortunately, the manuscripts in Timbuktu are alive and well, thanks to the bravoure and courage of the librarians there (see The New Republic’s article on this)

Copyright T160K

The war in Mali highlighted a not so rare phenomenon. Everyday on Earth, we probably lost forever books, scrolls, manuscripts, that were never duplicated, never digitized and that we won’t be able to recover. And it doesn’t happen only in Africa -Stanford’s library has already been damaged by floods twice, the recent JFK Library fire at Harvard could have been desastrous, and Canada’s Harper Government is destroying libraries around the country. 20 years ago, we could have said «what can we do about that? It is too expensive to digitize books». But this just isn’t true anymore. We now have the technology, thanks to companies like Google, and it is intolerable to lose whole sections of our knowledge when we have such cheap, reliable and performant processes available.

We don’t want the disaster of the Library of Alexandria to happen again

Sergey Brin described his vision of a «Library to last forever» in an op-ed contribution in The New York Times in 2009,  while Google was fighting the Author’s Guild in court over alleged abusive practices with its Google Books project.

We can’t let one company alone control our knowledge, but there are laws protecting us from this. And the lawsuits against Google Books were all about editor’s profits, not at all about this political question. We should let Google digitize every book on this planet. Humanity would tremendously benefit from being given access to such a universal library. Google should be allowed to digitize books, manuscripts (like the Dead Sea Scrolls), and every piece of written knowledge we have, like Mister Boularaf’s library.

Of course, Google will have to put every book that is in the public domain in its service for free, and it will have to find some compromises over orphan books. And for works under copyright, Google Books is a great bookstore already.

Because knowledge is power, what if Google decides to take the whole world hostage of its service? I think this won’t happen, there are laws and vigilant individuals and organizations protecting us from that, fighting for the right to access works in the public domain without any fee. Plus, the books/documents Google digitized are still available in their material form. And I think that we are today being taken hostages by libraries and editors, who are slowing the pace of digitization and of «remote access to culture». By keeping most of the world’s knowledge away from the general public, libraries and editors are already taking us hostage. And they see Google as a threat to their monopoly over knowledge.

To compete with Google Books, the US launched the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), and the European Union launched Europeana, which are both digital librairies. The problem is, they are digitizing books really, really slowly. And when you are looking for a book, you must look at at least two different websites, instead of just typing your querie in Google…

A remarquable BBC documentary called Google and the World Brain recently discussed all these concerns. Yet I think the benefits we’ll have with a Google Universal Library are greater than the risks of monopoly.

In order to make a universal library possible, we have to let Google make its search engine even more intelligent, by extracting knowledge from the digitized books. Every Google user – that is, more than a seventh of the world’s population every month, who can claim that except Google?- will be able to access hundreds of years of knowledge via a simple Google Search.

Jonathon Keats suggested in Wired this year that Google should receive a Literature Nobel Prize for the Google Books project. I believe he’s absolutely right. His words speak for themselves:
“Copyright law was created to balance the interests of authors and the public. Giving Google the Nobel Prize would make a powerful statement in favor of fair use.
According to Nobel’s will, the accolade is to be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Google Books provides greater literary benefit to more people than any single title or oeuvre. Whatever your taste in reading, you’re a beneficiary, as Google’s digitization protects books from hurricanes and fires and censorship by repressive regimes. There could be as many as 20 million volumes in the public domain, and already more than 2 million of them—from Utopia to Rights of Man—can be downloaded free (with help from proxy servers, if necessary) in Iran, Syria, and China. (In that respect, Google stands in marked contrast to last year’s Nobel laureate, the Chinese novelist Mo Yan, a Communist Party favorite who recently compared state censorship to airport security checks. That doesn’t exactly move literature in an ideal direction.)”

On November 13th 2013, Google won its lawsuit against the Author’s Guild. Judge Chin said: “Google Books provides significant public benefits. It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders.” And he’s right. Google Books makes books more accessible. Their content is searchable, meaning that you can now search not only for book titles but for sentences contained inside the actual text with Google Search! With the end of this issue, Google probably has much more power to build a Universal Library. And a Universal Library would be really useful for Google to build a super smart Star Trek-like AI, a kind of Digital Aristotle.

The competitors trying to build the Universal Library

books_logo_lg tumblr_mlgl3iKdPt1qcoev6o1_500

A Slate article  recently confirmed that Google’s ultimate goal is to create the Star Trek Computer. Nor Europeana nor the DPLA will ever be able to create such a service.

Now, in order to build a Star Trek Computer fueled by a Universal Library, Google will need to digitize a very special kind of litterature. That is, scientific litterature. Yet this particular field will represent some big challenges for Google.

Entering the academic publishing world is strange. You discover a weird field, where two leading editors control nearly the whole process of peer reviewed publishing. These two giants are the dutch Elsevier and the german Springer. Last year, the mathematician Timothy Gowers launched a boycott of Elsevier’s journals, followed by many researchers. He claimed that Elsevier was making enormous profits on unpaid authors and reviewers, and that its practice of «bundling» journals together was a terrible threat to the shrinking budgets of libraries. Since Elsevier owns most of the top peer reviewed journals, where could researchers publish their work?

It turns out that since 2008, a movement called Open Access has become more and more important. The concept is simple: the author has to pay a fee to the editor to publish his work, but the paper is then freely distributed online. Open Access is the best thing that has happened to the scientific publishing industry since Gutenberg. You can read the Open Access Manifesto wrote by the late Aaron Swartz, which is one of the most correctly written statement about freeing knowledge from ivory towers that I can think of.

Now as the scientific knowledge is contained in all these journals, some of them in Open Access, but the vast majority in standard «premium» access, Google will have to integrate all of that in order to build the Star Trek Computer.

Elsevier, Springer, Nature, all of them have online archives. But again, we need a single place, so that it will be easier to find say, all the papers published on Curiosity’s findings on Mars. Google can be this single place. It can distribute Open Access works for free, and non Open Access papers for the price the editor sets, while making all these papers more visible, and more importantly, searchable.

Once all these papers are searchable, we can easily imagine a researcher simply typing a Google querie and seing the articles he seeks ranked in a pertinent order, thanks to Google’s algorithms. As holders of the accumulation of hundreds of years of scientific works, it is the responsibility of editors to share their works so that we can build a universal library without violating their rights, even if Open Access is the way to go.

Papers in Open Access will be much more downloaded and cited than others, proving to editors that this publishing model can boost the Impact Factor of their journals.

This is a call to editors and to Google. We have the infrastructures, we have the technology, we lack a common, unifying goal of making available the wealth of our knowledge to everybody in this world. We lack the will to create such a service that would change the way we conduct science. Just imagine our most brilliant minds being able to look at everything that’s been written on everything. Whether these brilliant minds are inside the Harvard Library, in rural China or in Mali doesn’t matter: they would just need an internet connection. We can hope that HIV could be cured faster thanks to this shared wealth of knowledge for example.

It is very idealistic of course, since many people still can’t get access to the Internet, or since one billion people can’t eat enough food everyday. But this is where we need to take science, where we need to take the humanities. Where we need to take our knowledge.

Now that we saw that the biggest ivory towers keeping knowledge away from the general public are, ironically, libraries and publishers, and that a company such as Google could help them achieve their true goal of making knowledge more accessible, we have to realize that the biggest ivory tower of all perhaps is Earth.

Our fragile little planet ties the future of our Knowledge to its existence

What would happen to all of our knowledge if Earth was destroyed tomorrow by an asteroid? The last asteroid that came close to Earth, DA14, was just 17,200 miles away from a global disaster. And a meteor recently crashed in Siberia, damaging many buildings and causing injuries to more than a thousand people. What would remain of humanity if we were unable to detect an asteroid? Maybe a few buildings, a few people? In fact, most relics of our civilization would be in space: a few probes on the Moon (including Apollo modules), on Mars, and our ambassadors outside the Solar System: Voyager 1 & 2 (Matthew Battles wrote a story on these two probes in Aeon Magazine)

What would remain of our knowledge? Perhaps the Golden Record on the Voyager probes, carrying a few hours of sounds and a few pictures of the Earth. That is, nothing compared to the vast amount of knowledge we accumulated over centuries.

Voyager 1, one of the two ambassadors of our Knowledge to the stars

Our most resistant ivory tower, keeping us from preserving our knowledge for the millions of years to come, is actually Spaceship Earth. If we lose it, and this could happen at nearly any time, the tireless work of millions of scientists to understand our world, to give new knowledge to future generations, helping them make better decisions, would have been totally useless. Even if humanity disappears suddenly, it is interesting to preserve our knowledge, in the case another civilization encounters the remains of our existence. This was the goal Carl Sagan had with the Voyager Golden Record, but he didn’t have the technology we have nowadays.

Escaping this last ivory tower means becoming a «multi-planet» species, which thanks to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and his company Space X could happen quite soon. We need to have literally all our knowledge stored (on Mars let’s say); that is, having a copy of the Star Trek Computer and of the Google Universal Library on another planet than Earth.

Having our knowledge on Earth AND on Mars would significantly increase our chances of being able to carry on scientific research and transmit our knowledge even if a global cataclysm was to hit the Earth.

The best way to preserve our Knowledge: creating copies of it, storing them in different places. Just like the hard drive of your computer

The monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey represent the kind of thing we should build. The civilization that built these monoliths could even have disappeared, their knowledge is preserved forever (monoliths can last for millions of years). Building a monolith in my opinion is the act of storing all our knowledge in a sustainable manner in a single place. Today this kind of place would be a self sustaining data center for example. We lack some technology, because data centers can’t run without humans as of today, but we might be able to build automated data centers in the future, so that we could create our own monoliths one day; thus making our knowledge virtually immortal.

In order to succeed, we need first to build the Star Trek Computer, the monolith being the version of the Star Trek Computer to last forever. We need to get every book digitized and stored in a secured place. Google has already shown its ability to do that.

Once we’ll have done that on Earth, maybe we’ll be able to spread to Mars. If in ten years, the first martian colony is established; if in ten years, we complete the digital inventory of our knowledge and build the Star Trek Computer, then we’ll be ready. We’ll be ready to jump into the 21st century, ready to make our knowledge sustainable – you know, just in case.

The monolith is the ultimate artifact of our Knowledge. The complete inventory of what we know as a species
Copyright MGM Pictures/ Warner Bros. (2001 A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick)

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