Everyone wants kids to learn to code, but the message seems somehow more meaningful coming from adorable knee-high robots. Next week, Westport Library in Connecticut will introduce Vincent and Nancy, a pair of autonomous robots that can walk, dance, kick small balls, carry on conversations in 19 languages, and recognize faces. More importantly for Westport, they can be programmed with new "skills" using languages like Python and Java. The $8,000 machines (purchased with money from private donations) are made by a French robotics company called Aldebaran and better known as Nao robots. They come with an array of microphones, cameras, and touch sensors, and they run on a software platform that's supposed to be easy to learn; there's also an online catalog of preprogrammed behaviors.
After launching the robots on October 11th, the library will hold workshops teaching visitors to use the Nao software, including an introduction to Python. "What we're counting on is that there is great capacity for growth that will give patrons a chance to play with something resembling artificial intelligence," library assistant director Bill Derry tells The Wall Street Journal. "Our goal is to push it as far as we can and shed light on people who are thinking, experimenting, and producing to inspire them to go even farther." He plans to eventually hold programming competitions, leading up to a maker fair next year.
The Nao Evolution model purchased by the library came out earlier this year, and it's the fifth generation of the small robot. Previous models have been programmed to do things like pet cats, recognize facial expressions, and dance. They're already used for teaching, whether because of their programmability or because they can recite information and respond to students in a way a computer can't. Researchers are also testing them as a way to improve the communication skills of children with autism. At Westport, though, they could one day perform more prosaic tasks. Library coordinator Alex Giannini says he imagines Nancy and Vincent someday greeting patrons and helping them find books. We don't know when or if Westport might be sending tiny robots into the stacks, but it's at least a much more fun application of library tech than getting rid of books.