University of Pretoria employs Watson-powered robotic librarian

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Professor Tawana Kupe, UP vice-chancellor and principal, with Libby.
Professor Tawana Kupe, UP vice-chancellor and principal, with Libby.

The University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Department of Library Services has “employed” the first client service robot known to be in use in any university library in Africa.

The university says the introduction of the robotic librarian is in keeping with its focus on evolving in line with the fourth industrial revolution.

This week, the UP also made headlines when it hosted its Tuks Robot Race Day, which saw more than 70 autonomous robotic vehicles take to the track to compete for the top spot.

Libby, as the robot librarian is called, weighs in at 19kg and is 90cm tall – a height the university says is tall enough to interact with visitors in wheelchairs.

Libby started ‘work’ at UP’s Merensky Library on the Hatfield Campus on Tuesday, 28 May. According to the university, ‘she’ has an array of over 60 sensors, cameras and software integrations that enable her to receive and process various commands and requests.

She boasts a tablet integrated on her chest area for manual input. Her brain is connected to Watson, IBM’s question-answering computer system, which processes queries directed at Libby.

She runs off Android-based software, which opens up opportunities for the Department of Library Services to develop new and exciting client-facing applications, the university says.

Libby, however, is not all work and no play – she will dance for you, play music, and enjoys a light pat on the head, UP adds.

“Libby is originally from China and is officially a new library employee,” says Isak van der Walt, manager of the Department of Library Services’ creative laboratory, MakerSpace.

“Libby is not a threat to anyone’s job; she is merely part of the library’s innovative progress. For now, she only speaks English, but my team and I will be sure to incorporate two more languages as time goes by.

“This dedicated service robot will only perform general, mundane, repetitive tasks that staff perform around the library, thereby releasing them to perform more advanced and specialised services. The library sees the use of robotics as an added benefit that augments and enhances its service portfolio.”

UP vice-chancellor and principal, professor Tawana Kupe, who met Libby during a special preview “meet-and-greet with the VC”, says: “Taking our library into the 21st century also keeps the university at the cutting-edge of research, teaching and learning, and that is where we ought to be.

“New technology has now enhanced the quality of research and learning. This innovative progress helps ensure that when we say UP is at the cutting-edge of knowledge, we actually mean it.”

Libby is connected to the online cloud via WiFi, which enables her to send information back and forth so she can answer queries or process data from the surveys she is able to carry out.

Van der Walt says the library evaluated the client-facing environment in search of ways of optimising and adopting new technologies to enhance access and availability.

“We then saw the opportunity to investigate the use of a service robot to complement the existing set of services and add a new and refreshed dimension to our client experience.”

As part of the investigation into the available hardware in the market, the library also formed focus groups with students on what they would like to see or experience in interactions with a robot. An internal team of staff has also been identified to oversee Libby’s daily operations.

Van der Walt says Libby will interact with clients by providing guidance, answering questions, conducting surveys, and is even capable of displaying marketing videos.
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