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The robot swiveled with a smooth, precise motion and picked a book out of the return bin. The robot’s hand had already identified the book and discharged it from the library user’s account. Without a pause, the robot deposited the book on the green metal shelving cart, the second arm deftly making a space among the books already on the cart.

More items clattered through the book return slot and the robot spun, picked each up and registered the return. Most went on the cart for shelving. In a few instances, a receipt printer produced a slip of paper, which the robot slipped into the book before placing it on a red metal shelving cart.

The Advance of Machine Learning

The Inevitable cover artI’ve been listening to Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. The scenario above was inspired by the book, particularly the discussion of the robot Baxter (and its siblings, like Sawyer).

Isn’t a standard automated materials handling (AMH) system a better solution for library work? Perhaps. The decreasing costs of the robotic systems and the small footprint make them appealing for certain uses. The two-armed Baxter takes up more room, however, two arms may be more useful given the variety of library materials. To be clear I’m not suggesting either of these is the right solution for librariesThey are designed for certain types of work from assembly to packing. They can be taught to perform different tasks by moving the arm through the steps required. That’s a bit simplified, but it’s something to look at in the relatively near future. An AMH can cost $200,000 compared to $22,000 for a Baxter unit. At that rate, a couple properly configured Baxters could be an affordable option coupled with an RFID-equipped hand. It’d be interesting to talk to the company about the concept. If the carts were also mobile units and knew when they were at capacity, then the returns system could check in items, transport totes, and arrange themselves. It’d be far more flexible than current AMH systems, cost less, and do more.

Interesting possibilities! In any case, Kelley’s book is an interesting read.