Indigenous knowledge and futuristic avatars at NISOPlus

Internet librarians spend much of their working life in the present. However, two presentations at the 2021 NISOPlus conference brought home the importance of both looking back and looking forward. The speakers, one a Ghanaian librarian advocating for Indigenous Knowledge and the other a researcher from Japan investigating a future society enhanced with avatars, stimulated so many thoughts in my mind about the role of libraries, librarians, and our digital future.

The 2021 NISOPlus conference, held virtually across numerous time zones for four days, had the theme of Global Conversations and Global Connections. It encouraged collaborative learning and discussion among delegates. With time-shifted content, delegates could hear and see live presentations from Ghana and Japan in times convenient to the speakers.  

Indigenous Knowledge

Margaret Sraku-Lartey, Principal Librarian, CSIR-Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, stressed the importance of Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and lamented how little of it can be found in scientific online sources. One example: Synsepalum, a "miracle berry" that is used as an artificial sweetener is particularly beneficial for diabetics. She also described "sacred groves" where native plant and animal species are preserved. The "living libraries" of the Baansi of Dagbon, where knowledge lies in people rather than books, exemplify the transitory nature of IK. As people die, valuable knowledge is lost. Thus, the need to document, record and digitise their knowledge.

Since IK is transferred orally, capturing it can be problematic. Sraku-Lartey called on information professionals to move outside their comfort zone. It's a pleasant place, but nothing grows there, she said. She lauded AfricArXiv, hosted by the Center for Open Science, which also has collections related to IK. Key questions, for her, are whether collecting IK can be standardized, if there is a possibility to apply intellectual property rights, and can patents be developed. Collaboration is essential, as is mutual respect and understanding. IK has tended to be overlooked and trivialised by Western researchers. That needs to change.

Cybernetic Avatars

Norihiro Hagita, Program Director of the Japan Science & Technology Agency's Moonshot Goal 1 and Chair and Professor of the Art Science Department at Osaka University of Art, sees a potential future world where humans have avatars "to overcome the challenges of a declining birthrate, aging population and associated labour shortage." The key, said Hagita, "is to realize a society free from the limitations of body, brain, space, and time and allow people with various backgrounds and values—such as the elderly and those with responsibilities for nursing and childcare—to actively participate in society." These "cybernetic avatars" will allow expansion of human physical, cognitive and perceptual abilities. The date set for the realisation of Moonshot Goal 1 is 2030, which isn't that far away. Looking further into the future, by 2050, the hope is for a cybernetic avatar infrastructure for diversity and inclusion.

Other Moonshot goals include very early diagnosis and prevention of diseases, sustainable resource recycling, a circulating food production system and the development of quantum computers.

The avatar technology of Moonshot 1 will allow one person to operate multiple avatars for a single task. Moving forward, the next step would be multiple people operating multiple avatars for a single task, then multiple people operating multiple avatars for multiple tasks.

Hagita presented five scenarios to illustrate the value of the cybernetic avatars. They could be used in disaster relief situations for rapid rescue efforts. Playing sports, both esports and physical, was his second scenario. This is close to his third, enjoying a full day holiday without leaving home. Imagine relaxing on a Hawaiian beach, climbing Mount Fuji, taking piano lessons, watching a concert, and tending to your garden, possibly all in the same day. In the fourth scenario, Hagita envisions human health and longevity being protected by avatars. Fifth is maximising creativity. Granted, these scenarios raise very legitimate questions about ethical, legal, social and economic issues (ELSE).

Exploring the broader impacts of the work done by information professionals, on a global scale, was a goal of the NISOPlus conference. The ideas brought forth from Ghana and Japan proved that the conference achieved that goal.