This library's AI chatbot can help you pick a book and stream movies

When you ask Scout the chatbot how it’s doing, it tells you.

When you ask Scout the chatbot how it’s doing, it tells you.

Calgary's artificial intelligence chat robot will tell you its favourite book, you just have to ask. (Helen Pike/CBC)

When you ask Scout the chatbot how it's doing, it tells you.

"Wonderful. Books are my happy place."

The computer-based program has gradually been given a personality as it's being prepared by a team of employees to launch on the Calgary Public Library web page.

Mark Asberg, the Calgary Public Library CEO, says Scout can handle the easy questions and leave complex issues for library staff. (Helen Pike/CBC)

"I would say that Scout is warm and helpful and a little bit funny and a little bit naive sometimes in terms of how it interprets language," said CPL CEO Mark Asberg. "Scout is a lot like a young person in that it is learning about the world." 

One of the reasons Asberg said they pursued artificial intelligence was when a new type of library model opened in Rocky Ridge. The branch was meant to be more of a self-serve experience for patrons, so there wasn't always staff onsite to help with questions.

So, early in 2018 Scout booted up for the first time at that location, and six months later was added to all of the library's branches.

Soon, Scout will be available on the Calgary Public Library website where it can answer questions that come from anywhere.

"If we can get Scout to handle a lot of the more basic questions that people may have about the library … we can spend more time with patrons who may have more complex questions or needs," said Asberg. "Or deliver more programming — be out in the community more." 

And, as Scout is used by more people, it gets more intelligent. So far, the program is great at helping out patrons find out how to get a library card, what the branch hours are and can even guide folks through the process of streaming movies online. 

Sandy Yang tried the AI bot out for the first time during her lunch break. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Sandy Yang was at the Central Library for her lunch break.

She introduced herself to Scout, tried out the program and she was impressed.

"I think it's going to save a lot of time," she said. "I think it'll be very helpful, to be honest."

Doesn't have all the answers

Scout's favourite book, if you ask, is "The Wild Robot!!!"

But if you ask it a question the chat-bot doesn't know the answer to, Asberg said its pretty upfront about telling you.

"We actually have a team of people who are constantly feeding Scout new information about the library," said Asberg. "Also monitoring questions to make sure Scout is actually answering them really well, helping to train Scout or direct Scout to the right answers if Scout isn't learning on its own."

Asberg said one of the good things about a burgeoning chat bot is the public has patience with it, and so far, response to the quirky bot has been positive.


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