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Pepper, Carroll County Public Library's robot, teaches coding — and also does impressions and dances

Pepper, Carroll County Public Library's humanoid robot, is introduced to patrons during a program at the Eldersburg Branch on Tuesday, May 14.

Carroll County residents need look no further than their own library to learn how to code — and to operate an actual robot.

The Carroll County Public Library is using a humanoid robot named Pepper to teach coding to teens and adults. They received Pepper at the beginning of this year and have been introducing her to visitors at the various CCPL branches.

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Jen Bishop, emerging technologies supervisor for CCPL, explained how they see Pepper’s purpose.

“One, we want to introduce our customers and our community to what robots are, how they interact in a public environment, what are their strengths, what are their limitations, how the underlying technology works,” Bishop said. “And then we’re using Pepper as a teaching tool to teach coding to teens and adults.”

Pepper is programmed to answer certain question like what her name is, where she is from, how much she weighs, what the weather is like and when her birthday is. She is also programmed to remember certain people, like the staff members at CCPL.

Pepper was funded by a Library Services and Technology Act Grant from the Maryland State Library and Institute of Museum and Library Services. The grant fully covered Pepper’s $25,000.

CCPL is the second library in the nation to get a Pepper robot.

Pepper has interacted with more than 400 people at all the branches.

Teens and adults are taught to use python coding. Some teens have even asked if Pepper could dab, but so far, she mainly knows disco moves.

Python coding is a programming language that is commonly behind websites like Instagram, Netflix, Reddit, Facebook and Dropbox.

“We got a great response in the demos, with all ages,” said Bishop. “It’s really interesting when the kindergartners came through, the teachers made a really great connection of ‘you’re coding at school using the bee bots,’ so I think [it is] making that connection of showing what you can do by learning coding.”

Pepper, who stands at a little over 4 feet tall, also reads books, does Thai chi, plays Simon Says, does impressions and dances. She has two books programmed into her system – “Pete the Cat” and “Peter Rabbit.”

CCPL want to use Pepper to build a connection to artificial intelligence in the community in a fun way.

According to Bishop, the children are sometimes initially hesitant to interact with Pepper, but applications like Tickle Me, which involves tablet interaction to get Pepper to react like she is being ticked, and Pepper’s child-like stature makes kids more comfortable.

“Pepper’s kind of the right size — not too tall and not too short — that the kids aren’t intimidated by it as a robot,” said Bob Kuntz, director of operations and innovation. “The parents that were there with the kids, too, they were interested in Pepper. They were like, ‘How does Pepper work?’”

Pepper works better in quieter environments and that can be much more difficult when working with a younger audience.

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“With the younger kids, we’re mostly doing program-driven introductions,” said Bishop. “So, we’re running a program and it’s in Pepper’s filing, whatever that application is. The speech recognition is a little bit harder for kids to understand what they’re saying, so that conversational piece is going to be harder. The microphone [on Pepper] you’re really projecting kind of straight out and if you’re shorter, it’s a little bit more challenging.”

Pepper quickly shows the young programmers at their library their coding abilities.

“What’s nice with Pepper is you get that feedback,” said Kuntz. “I’ve written this code and then you can see, fairly immediately — ‘Does Pepper do what you want her to do, or not?’ So, it gives them that feedback.

“Then, with Pepper, they can design things for Pepper to do in the library then Pepper could still be doing that five, 10 years later and they’ve created it, so they get to see the benefit of their work.”

Bishop is excited to see how the kids code and what programs they create in the sessions.

Pepper, who visited the Eldersburg branch last Tuesday, will be visiting more locations throughout the year for coding sessions. Her next coding session will be Wednesday, May 22 at the Westminster branch.

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