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Paul Jones: “Science behind the ‘Jeopardy!’ giant killer”

Emma Boettcher is a user experience librarian who won at “Jeopardy!” ending the rich run of James Holzhauer.

(Google, or Siri, or Alexa): “What is a user experience librarian?”

Just answering this question can be a challenge to a machine – and to a human. But this question is exactly what we ask at the UNC School of Information and Library Science – along with: “What is the question?” and “What is a question?”

What do we do at our school? We used to teach people how to use technology. Now we teach technology how to use people.

It sounds like a joke and in a way it is. But more and more the essence of our interactions with technologies is through natural language, speaking to our devices. They are expected to understand our accents, our pauses and our phrasings. But more so, as we interact with them, we are training them how to understand us – and we are being trained how to ask questions effectively to those devices.

That interaction between computers and people is called in our school and in jobs “User Experience” – “UX,” or “Human Computer Interaction” – “HCI.” It has become more important in our daily lives as the ways of working with complex data improve, and as masses of data are collected. And as computers and phones increase in speed of processing and accessing it all.

Speed, code, big data, and personalization have made the field of Information Science more urgent and meaningful than ever before. We expect answers from our phones in less time than it takes to hit the “Jeopardy!” buzzer. We want our machines to anticipate our questions and have answers ready instantly and clearly.

Research and work in UX are essential to provide such fast, effective responses. We depend on it for success in health care, business, education – in all parts of our daily lives.

When Emma Boettcher proposed to work on “Jeopardy!” answers to her advisor, Dr. Stephanie Haas, Haas was intrigued. What a great dataset to work with. What nuances. And questions and answers already rated and weighted. A wonderful proposal for Information Science research.

Boettcher’s research proposal received the school’s Elfreda Chatman Research Award in 2015. Her resulting paper, “Predicting the Difficulty of Trivia Questions Using Text Features” won the Dean’s Award for best master’s paper at her graduation from UNC SILS in 2016. She continues to use what she learned from her classes and research in her job – and in winning “Jeopardy!”

But her research has further impact. We need to understand how tricky and even deceptive phrasing of a question or an answer can mislead us and mislead our friendly devices. We need to be better at analyzing what we are being asked and what we’re being told.

Whether applied to a message on Twitter from a Russian bot or from Siri/Alexa/Google, Boettcher’s work helps us move closer to better and better answers.

So, back to our original question.

What is a user experience librarian? A “librarian,” as Parker Posey learned in the movie Party Girl, is someone who completes a master’s degree program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), such as UNC SILS.

Working in UX means improving the interface between humans and devices. (UNC SILS is the only school in North Carolina offering an ALA accredited degree in Information Science and the only school in North Carolina that is part of the global iSchool consortium).
Someone with a master’s degree in Information Science need not work in a library, but they may. They also may work at Google, Instagram, GE, MetLife, government, and small startups. Even at Duke University.

Our relationships with our smart devices are still developing and maturing. We have a long and interesting way to go. Language was our first link to other intelligences, then books, then the internet. Now it is with our machines in their own extended data rich network. Each becomes a more intimate yet unique conversation.

We need more user experience experts – librarians and others – like Boettcher to help us grow in our relationships with information and our devices.

Congratulations, Emma!

Portrait photo of Paul Jones
Paul Jones is director of is external), a 20+ year project that facilitates legal sharing on the internet, and a clinical professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS).

This column originally appeared as a Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc., op-ed on June 9.