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Learning Curve

Beyond bookshelves: Meet your public library’s robots

Marketplace Contributor Oct 10, 2014
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Robots can help build cars, they can vacuum your floor, they can even engage in galactic war . . . well, maybe eventually they can do that. But can you check one out at a local library?

Not yet, but close.

The public library in Westport, Connecticut is set to debut its two latest acquisitions this weekend: the robots Nancy and Vincent.

Standing two feet tall, with Buzz Lightyear-like bodies, they can walk, talk and even do Tai Chi in sync with each other, while playing their own music.  They’re amazingly humanoid, smooth and graceful, as they slowly balance and sway on their 24 joints—not as many as a human, but enough to mimic quite a bit of what we can do.

They also gesture a lot when they talk. “I use my hands above all to express my emotions,” Vincent chimes in – literally.  There’s a two-tone beep to announce he has something to say.

These fancy toys sound intelligent and responsive, but they can only respond to and do the things that someone programs them to do. And that’s why they’re at the library.  Alex Giannini is the manager of digital experience at the Westport Library. He says the library has an 8- to 80-year-old approach to things, where anyone, at any age, at any level can come in and learn how to program these guys.”

Giannini says patrons will be able to use the coding language Python to program the robots do all kinds of things—like read stories to kids, dance, do a sales pitch.  The library is also thinking about doing robot poetry slams. “Because they gesticulate like we do,” says Giannini.  

Maxine Bleiweiss is the library director. She says good libraries have always been on the cutting edge. In the ’80s, she says, libraries were the place most people put their hands on a computer for the first time.

“Fast-forward to three years ago, we put 3-d printers in our library,” Bleiweiss says, “and so it is with robotics: We believe robotics is the next disruptive technology that people need to know about.”

If we fast-forward enough, could robots disrupt the need for a librarian?

Bleiweiss says no. “The librarian as curator of information has never been needed as much as it is now, because there’s so much information out there.”  It’s an argument to keep librarians on the cutting edge, and keep them curating, because … information overload, right?

“Everybody is a little crazy,” Vincent responds. 

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