May 11, 2018

Library Robot Coming to Welsh University

Pasi William Sachiti, Ariel Ladegaard, prototype robot

Pasi Chidziva, also known as William Sachiti (left) and Ariel Ladegaard (right) with a prototype of Hugh, the robot librarian.

At Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom, users will soon have a novel means of consulting the catalog at the college’s Hugh Owen Library. Rather than typing their request, or asking a reference librarian, students can be led to the title they’re looking for by a robot with access to all of the library’s holdings.

Developed by a team of Aberystwyth students, a prototype of the robot, named Hugh, made its debut this February at BCS Show and Tell, a gathering of technologists from around the region. The robot is designed to listen to spoken requests from students, parse them by applying its artificial intelligence to the catalog, and then guide them to the title they need.

Hugh is designed to exhibit what’s called “narrow artificial intelligence”—in other words, being very good at a restricted range of tasks. Similar robots could one day make themselves useful in various settings, carrying out specialized duties. If the library version of Hugh is a success, plans are in place to continue development on a second iteration for use in hospitals and other medical settings.

First things first, though, and before Hugh’s descendants can demonstrate their worth in the emergency room, this prototype will aim to make itself useful in the stacks.

“Hugh is useful for automating or simplifying tedious and mundane tasks. Things that both staff and users don’t want to spend time on,” said Pasi Chidziva, a member of the team working on developing Hugh’s AI. “As more powerful actuators are combined with human-friendly safety measures, maybe we’ll see a cousin of Hugh doing reshelving in the library.”

That means a robot that can understand commands, find solutions, and do it all without making a scene, which is a challenge for the design team. Of the many demands made on previous generations of robots, they were rarely asked to be quiet and unobtrusive.

“The next phase is to look at how it moves around without bumping into people and library furniture, how it finds out where the books are, how it interprets voice commands, how it displays the information, and what it looks like”, said fellow student developer Ariel Ladegaard. “And of course, in a quiet environment such as a library, should it have its own voice?”

Why a library? Chidziva points out that the same things that make the library a good place for students to study also make it a great place for an AI to get its first lessons in human interaction.

“A library is generally a place where people are on their best behavior, quiet and controlled,” Chidziva told Library Journal. “Testing a service robot in public places like supermarkets will be open to human abuse or vandalism.”

Making Hugh a success is a multidisicplinary effort. The team of Aberystwyth undergraduates and graduate students working to create the library robot have their backgrounds in a variety of fields, among them hardware, software, user interface design, and voice recognition.

The team behind Hugh is hoping to have the first iteration of the robot in service at the library in September 2016. That first iteration of the robot will be able to take a book request and help users navigate to the title. These fairly simple tasks will help the designers gather data and feedback to see where their robotic guide is succeeding, and where there’s room for improvement.

“There will be a lot of time spent on training the robot to understand the accents and what people mean when they say certain words,” said Chidziva.

Once it has this initial training down, Hugh’s designers and programmers hope to teach it more complex tasks, such as identifying students by their ID cards, calling up the syllabi for their classes, and automatically directing them to titles on recommended reading lists.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. It’s like Borderlands!