Social Robots Practice Standup Comedy

By Wesley Fenlon

Roboticist Heather Knight is teaching a robot to tell jokes and make you laugh, but all it really wants is your love.

If a robot tells jokes written by humans, is the robot a comedian? What if that robot isn't just reciting a memorized set, but rather reading the audience, analyzing how they responded to a joke, and drawing from a database of 200 jokes to tailor its performance to an audience? And what if that robot has a rare skill--comedic timing? Programmed by human hands and minds he may be, but Data, created by roboticist Heather Knight, definitely has the makings of a plastic-and-silicon standup comedian.

GQ recently wrote a great story about Data, its inventor Heather Knight, and a stand-up session at SXSW in Austin. Data apparently cracked people up, and the article does a great job of delving into all the issues you'd expect--how comedy works, what comics think of a robot telling jokes, and how the robot could potentially eclipse humanity's talent for comedy.

Not this Data, unfortunately.

Since Data can't come up with his own jokes, that's likely never going to happen. But he does have access to data human comics don't. By measuring the applause and volume level of an audience, he can instantly guess how well a joke played and follow it up with something similar or switch tactics. And he never gets flustered.

It's an interesting study of comedy, but Data is actually more interesting than you'd first guess. Taking over the standup comedy world isn't his mission. That's not why Knight built him. GQ writes:

"She views Data more as an envoy for robomanity. 'The goal is that one day in the future we can have a companion robot that doesn't piss us off all the time,' she explains. 'One that we like hanging out and spending time with.' Basically, she wants us all to be friends. Because in the future, according to Knight and her fellow social roboticists, man and machine will not only work together but also trust each other. And comedy, she figures, is such a uniquely human form of endearment that if robots can begin to master it, it'll be a crucial step in deepening our connection to them."

Knight may be teaching Data in the ways of standup comedy, but that's just one way to achieve more personable robots. And a lot of the elements at work in Data's comedy, like gauging human reactions and nailing the timing of a joke, can carry over into day-to-day relations. Knight also runs the Marilyn Monrobot Labs in New York and is working on doctoral robotics research at Carnegie Mellon. It's safe to say she knows a thing or two about robots.