The University of Pretoria (UP) recently hosted the International Symposium on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Libraries and the Education Sector.
The virtual event was held over two days, 10 and 11 November 2021, and brought together academics, computer scientists and AI enthusiasts from all over the world. Organised by UP’s Department of Library Services, the online event attracted about 200 participants and several speakers.
Keynote speaker Professor Tawana Kupe, UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal, introduced attendees to UP Library Services’ robot librarian Libby as well as Stevie, the Faculty of Health Sciences’ mobile treatment robot, before directing his attention to the role of libraries.
“In South Africa, libraries have a critical role to play, not only in nurturing and growing our democracy, but also as gateways to participation in society through lifelong learning, and access to information for students, graduates and citizens,” he said. “By supporting open-source AI, public institutions can ensure that researchers are able to access powerful systems that are free from corporate bias. At UP, we are passionate about Africa’s potential to rise and thrive as a knowledge economy, with our libraries at the centre. From early childhood development to university and beyond, digital literacy is a must.”
Professor Arthur Mutambara, former Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and Executive Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge, was a guest speaker at the event, and focused his attention on how universities can play a role in global problem-solving. “The role of the library is to solve global challenges,” he said. “Universities should produce a new kind of graduate. We can solve global challenges through innovation, entrepreneurship, and by adapting to the fourth industrial revolution and innovation.”
“AI and robotic technologies are increasingly gaining practical implementation in libraries across the world,” added Isaiah Michael Omame, author and librarian at the Federal University of Lafia in Nigeria. “The rapid development and supply of AI and robotic technologies, coupled with the increasing demands of digital information services, have necessitated libraries worldwide to reinvent their mode of delivery. Consequently, a number of libraries around the world are fast evolving in tandem with this development. Robots are carrying out real-time library activities. Today, we have smart AI-enabled libraries with voice-activated systems. Robots are becoming our library colleagues!”
UP Registrar Professor Caroline Nicholson, a guest speaker, began her presentation by touching on how the use of robotics in libraries relieves library staff from routine tasks, before focusing her attention on AI. “In the broader teaching and learning context at UP, AI is also being harnessed to support the University strategy,” she said. “To date, the use of AI in teaching and learning has been predominantly focused on the provision of AI assistants and chatbots, intelligent tutoring systems, and on applications to support testing, evaluation and comprehension. UP does offer some simulations, game-based learning and virtual reality – especially, but not exclusively – in the science, engineering and technology fields. These technologies have proven especially valuable during the current COVID-19 crisis, and the shift to online multi-modal teaching and learning where they have significantly contributed to an enhanced student experience and student success. It should be acknowledged, however, that simulations, game-based learning and virtual reality could be more extensively utilised in the teaching and learning space.”
Other themes explored during the symposium included autonomous delivery vehicles and other robots for library operations, cognitive automation, and collaborative robots and hybrid robotics.
All presentations and speeches will be made available on UPSpace, the library’s institutional repository.