Library's android has answers for readers

An android that has made its debut at Shanghai Library this year can answer a range of queries from readers.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A reader interacts with the android in the lobby of Shanghai Library yesterday.

A robot designed to help readers at Shanghai Library is attracting a lot of attention after its debut this year. 

About 1 meter tall, with a touch screen as a “face,” the android stands beside the registration assistance desk in the lobby.

“We have implanted answers to 60 different questions in 483 different forms summarized from the 200,000 questions we received on library’s WeChat,” said Li Ying of the library's new media department.

Most of the questions related to opening times, library cards and requests for directions.

“A receptionist once said she answered the question ‘where is the toilet’ more than 60 times a day,” said Feng Xiao who is responsible for “training” the android. “With the android, we wish to reduce the workload and duplication of our receptionists.”

Feng records questions and answers in a notebook. “I tick the ones the android can answer and cross out those it cannot,” Feng said.

When Shanghai Daily quizzed the android it answered a query about card refunds at the fourth attempt.

But when asked how to apply for a library card, it replied: “Why do so many people want a card?”

Feng explained that people may have different ways of asking the same thing, but the android is not that effective to understanding different tones or expressions. 

“The questions implanted are summarized from WeChat where questions are all written,” Feng said. “People in reality are more flexible.”

Li said that for now the android cannot answer questions with specific requirements or complicated terminology. But the library will implant more information so it can provide a better service in future.

Meanwhile, a more advanced android is on the way.

According to Li, the new one will be able to answer questions in Chinese, English, French and Japanese. It will also be more proactive in introducing library events and locations of books.

“The new android is still running tests,” said Li. “You may have to wait a bit longer.”

But Li said a new intelligent WeChat customer service will be put online around January 20. The auto-answer service will be able to provide book and basic library information.

Li said that when a customer is not satisfied with the answer provided or the system cannot offer the answer to a certain question, all data of the conversation will be automatically logged and sent to manual service where staff will take over. 

Shanghai library has a team of 24 people working in three shifts from 8:30am to 8:30pm to answer enquires from readers on WeChat or in reading rooms.

“An average of 15,000 questions are asked by readers via WeChat every month,” Li said. “It takes about 60 seconds to answer one.”

In order to provide more facilities to readers as well as to free staff from recurring tasks, the library will continue applying various ranges of intelligent technology.

As for the android in the lobby, Feng said the library is planning to make it a host droid that can provide not only basic information, but more fun.

“Have a chit chat with it, or ask it to sing a song,” Feng said.


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