Indexing: Job Security Because a Computer Can’t Do It

Last updated on May 10th, 2018

Indexers have job security. For the time being, anyway, and likely for some time to come. Computers can’t “think” well enough to do an index yet, so robots aren’t going to replace us any time soon.

Indexing: Job Security Because a Computer Can't Do ItMany years ago, with the advent of the personal computer and the incredibly “smart” functions that became standard in each iteration of word processing software. Smart search functions made it seem plausible that human indexers might become obsolete. Not so.

In fact, the exponential growth of the Web and computer software have created an increased demand for human indexers. This is because computers can be programmed with algorithms that can do mind-boggling analytics, but they are not yet able to think conceptually. A program might be written to “index” words in a book, but this would prove just about useless to any user of that index, because there would be no sense of context for those words.

In addition, a computer program cannot determine the concept of a paragraph. If a term or concept is not specifically defined in a paragraph, there is no way that a computer could conceptualize the subject of that paragraph. If the term or concept is not used in those exact terms, then a computer program would never know to add that term or concept to the index. For example, the concept of race relations might never be determined from a paragraph about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his speech “I Have a Dream.” Conceptual thinking is vital for such a task.

Indexers do so much more than create a list of words from a text. What they do is to create a list of concepts and relationships among those words, something a computer program cannot do.

Human indexers can also determine relevancy of a topic, or to a topic-again, something that a program cannot do. If a topic ranges over several pages, a human can determine the range and the topic covered, whereas a computer program could not.

A human can understand that several terms might indicate a single concept, such as “race relations,” “racial bias,” “segregation,” and “discrimination.” A human could see these individual terms and understand that they fall into the same category.

Finally, humans can index even misspelled words, whereas a computer program would likely skip over the word and not add it to the index.

All in all, the ability to reason, to formulate concepts, and to contextualize are advantages of the human mind over computer programs. It will likely be decades before these abilities are programmable. Until then, humans have job security.


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