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Meet Libby - the new robot library assistant at the University of Pretoria's Hatfield campus

The 4th industrial revolution has landed at the University of Pretoria with the employment of Libby, a new library assistant robot.
The 4th industrial revolution has landed at the University of Pretoria with the employment of Libby, a new library assistant robot.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

The new coolest attraction at the library of the University of Pretoria’s main campus in Hatfield is a robot named Libby.

Although short and slightly chubby for her height, she’s become the hottest thing on campus after being appointed as the new library assistant at the university which boasts a 50,000-plus student community.

The stumpy robot helps with directions and can help you find your way at the campus’ main library. When Sowetan interviewed her on Tuesday, Libby could respond to 2,500 questions and was in for an upgrade on Thursday, which would expand her information processing capabilities.

When asked why was Libby around, Isak van der Walt, the university's centre manager for digital scholarship and MakerSpace, said her presence was informed by the university and its library's drive to “immerse itself in the Fourth Industrial Revolution".

“The library continuously strives to redefine academic librarianship and how we deliver services. With the growing number of students we had to get smart on how we still deliver excellent service but still advance and stay relevant. This has been done by the adoption of self-help terminals,” Van der Walt said.

However, he was quick to allay fears that Libby was gunning for people’s jobs, saying her presence was meant to enhance the library’s services. In a brief interaction with Sowetan, Libby directed our team to where the toilets were, however, she’s more refined as she prefers referring to them as the “restrooms” or “bathrooms”.

Libby even assisted our team with information on where the engineering department was situated, however, could not respond when asked if “she liked the Blue Bulls”. At 90cm tall, Libby is tall enough to be able to assist students on wheelchair. She weighs 19kg and is smart enough to know how to manage her battery power. She's equipped with an infrared beam which connects to her charging spot that Libby slides to, without any assistance, when her battery power becomes low.

Originally from China, costing the university about R150,000, Libby speaks only English. Although her accent was currently robotic, there were suggestions that Libby needed to be given a more South African accent. She features dozens of sensors and can receive and is trained on the core services of the library and able to answer library-related questions.

“The purpose of the Libby is to assist students and staff with finding venues, resources and advice on certain procedures specific to University of Pretoria libraries,” Van der Walt said, adding that Libby has “quite a load of hardware built in” such as seven microphones for voice localisation, two cameras, a 3-D sensor, seven touch sensors, obstacle avoidance sensors, two high-definition cameras and a 10-inch tablet built into her chest for touch interaction among many others.

BA final year student Percy Ndhlovu is excited about the arrival of Libby on campus. “I’m happy that the university is finding innovative ways to make students' life better. Libby will be very useful,” Ndhlovu said.

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