A.I. Steps Up To Lend A Hand

Nov 16, 2018

Pepper the humanoid robot at the Roanoke County South Library
Credit Jeff Bossert

Some of our workforce today is worried about their jobs being taken by artificial intelligence.  But for a couple new innovations, it’s all about helping human staff, and improving the experience for the public.

The Roanoke County South Library is believed to be the first in the U.S. to have the services of Pepper.  Staff members say it’s also used by one in Denmark.  It’s also used at a few museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington.

When prompted, Pepper can do a dance, or tell a story, or joke.  But more importantly, it can also guide patrons to services, and one day soon, help kids throughout the County’s library system with literacy programs, and lead exercise time for nursing home residents. 

The concept of using AI at the library was already part of a strategic plan. But it didn't start to become reality until Director of Library Services Shari Henry had an epiphany.

“During our Christmas tree lighting (last year) where about 1,500 people come – I noticed that the line to see the unveiling of the 3D printers was longer than the line to see Santa,” she said.  “And so that really showed me that there was a hunger in this community for more technology."

Administrators then reached out to RobotLAB, which connects robots with K-thru-12 classrooms, to adapt Pepper to the library system. 

South County Library Senior Manager Michael Hibben says the robot is ‘open source’ – so it can be modified however library administrators see fit. 

“So we’re working with Robotlab to create this app where people can just interact with natural language with Pepper,” he said. “And Pepper was designed in Japan as a robot helper, and it’s the first robot in the world that can read human emotion. So I think there’s a lot of possibility too that we’re excited about.”

Library staff also plans to start classes for ‘coding’ – which will provide Pepper with commands and instructions. 

The robot was privately funded by the Friends of the Roanoke County Public Library.  But staff says it may seek out sponsors for another robot - or similar technology, in the library system.

The Roanoke County Public Library will provide updates for events featuring Pepper on its website and Facebook page.

Another new innovation may not do any tutoring, but could make a visit to Lynchburg a little more interesting.

Murray is named for the hotel it serves, the Courtyard by Marriott, on Murray Place. 

Murray the relay robot, at the Courtyard by Marriott on Murray Place in Lynchburg

This robot doesn’t talk, but can ring a guest’s room phone, letting them know room service is delivered.

If a guest asks for towel or something from the Bistro.  Just need to load it in the top of the robot,” said Josh Green, the hotel’s general manager.  “He takes his morning breakfast runs, he gets a few people asking for breakfast, taking it up – so he’ll do that, sometimes at night he’ll take up some dinner options too.”

Green says a lot of people will order room service just to see Murray in action - and it’s getting praise from guests of all ages. 

It’s made by California-based company Savioke, and similar to ‘relay robots’ that are used at Fed Ex packaging centers, and some hospitals.

Green says staff can keep tabs on Murray – by seeing what it sees at their front desk computer.

“So there’s been a couple times when I’ve seen the housekeeper or a couple staff members jump back when he sneaks up on them,” he said.

The robot is leased by the hotel for a monthly fee.  If the Marriott wants, Murray can get an upgrade – a bit like upgrading apps on a smartphone – so it’s capable of telling jokes and mingling with hotel guests.  But Green says there’s no plan to do that now.

As for the future of robots in public life, innovator Peter Schwartz recently said that AI will serve as a ‘big help, not a hindrance.” 

Now an executive at software company Salesforce, he told CNBC that AI will not replace people, but make them more capable, focusing on creativity and interpersonal skills.