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MOUNTAIN VIEW — Only in Silicon Valley will a robot return your library books for you.
Residents in downtown Mountain View have gotten their first peek at the future with the debut of BookBot, the library’s newest non-human helper. A creation of Google’s Area 120 — an experimental division of the technology juggernaut — the bot is the company’s first personal delivery robot to hit the streets and begin interacting with the public, said Christian Bersch, the project’s team lead.
It’s part of a program to test the waters of what could be possible for autonomous, electric robots, he said.
“Right now, we just want to learn how this would work, how it operates and what kinds of problems we’d run into,” he said. “It’s still an active development.”
The pilot will run for nine months with a human handler following behind the BookBot for the first six months, he said. That’s just to make sure it’s operating as planned, get it out of trouble as needed and observe how people are responding. After that, a human will sit behind the controls remotely.
And, on a recent Thursday, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Children shrieked at the sight of the robot and immediately jumped in its path to see if it would stop. (It does.) Adults either pulled out their photos to snag photos or video and gawk or nonchalantly went about their way.
The Mountain View City Council approved a new permitting system last year to allow companies to try out personal delivery devices on its streets. Starship Technologies was the first with its roll-out last April of an on-demand food and package courier for Intuit employees on the company’s 4.3-acre campus.
Mary Campione, a Mountain View resident of more than 30 years, said it’s no surprise to see more robots roaming the streets of Google and other tech companies’ hometown.
“We live in the epicenter of technology,” Campione said. “There are autonomous cars driving around here all the time and robots in restaurants. So no, it’s not all that surprising.”
Campione heard about the BookBot on Facebook when it launched in late February. It only operates within a certain radius of the Mountain View Public Library, and hours are limited to Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Users must schedule the pickup time in advance, which — because the bot is fairly popular — means planning at least a week ahead. It can carry up to about 10 items, Bersch said, depending on the size of the books.
Given that she lives just a short walk away, Campione said it’s unlikely she’d order a pickup again. “It’s a novelty. I was just kind of excited because it’s fun, and it’s a good use of technology.”
Like all libraries, Mountain View finds there’s a certain percentage of scofflaws, who, for whatever reason, fail to return their books, said library Director Tracy Gray. She’s hoping the bot will give people who have limited mobility, are recovering from an injury, are ill, or have a sleeping baby at home another opportunity to continue taking advantage of the library’s services.
“It’s just a great way to give people the convenience of being able to return their books without leaving the house,” she said.
And, there are many other ways robots like these could add convenience to people’s lives, said Sriram Vangheeburam, a Fremont resident who works in Mountain View. He stopped to marvel at the BookBot passing by.
Sure, it’s collecting books right now, he said, but what about second-hand items for charities? People don’t tend to donate a lot of their stuff because they don’t have time, he said. Maybe something like this delivery bot could save a trip to the thrift store, he wondered.
“It’s totally exciting,” Vangheeburam said. “It’s about helping people, and there’s so much more you could do with this.”