September 5th, 2011
11:47 AM ET

Meet a robot sketch comedian

You've probably heard of Watson, the computer that went head-to-head with humans on Jeopardy. You know that robots are increasingly used in manufacturing around the country and around the world. But have you ever heard of a robot sketch comedian?

Well, meet Data. Also joining us is Data's handler, Heather Knight, a doctoral researcher in robotics at Carnegie-Mellon who studies the intersection of entertainment and robotics.

Check out the video for Data's comedy sketch, then read my interview with Heather Knight.

Fareed Zakaria: OK. So Heather, that was pretty amusing, but mostly just fascinating. Now, you wrote the routine for Data, but his reactions are sort of natural. His sensors work so that he can sense the audience's reaction.

Heather Knight: Right. Yes.

Fareed Zakaria: Explain how that works.

Heather Knight: So, like robots can learn through lots of data. In some of my work, I've been using each member of the audience as kind of a data point for machine learning. So in the reactions of a large group of people to a robot performer on stage, a robot could potentially learn to be more charismatic and more effective communicator and also be able to shape a performance for an individual group of people.

So there can be visual feedback, which is kind of conscious or we could make an iPhone app for your giving feedback along the way, like "I love that joke." You could rate things more, like Netflix style.

Fareed Zakaria: And – and the robot would, in effect, incorporate that information and tell more of the jokes that you like and fewer of the ones you don't – sort of like Pandora, with the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Heather Knight: Absolutely. Or you can even try telling jokes with a different set of gestures and see that joke is 10 times as funny for an audience.

Fareed Zakaria: Now, all of this sort of can be filed under artificial intelligence, and earlier this year, Watson, the IBM super computer, beat its human competitors in Jeopardy. So how sophisticated are we getting here?

Heather Knight: Well, I think that those two projects are actually great tandem projects. Watson is great at searching databases, and one of the things that I'm trying to do with the audience is generate some of those databases and also specifically generate them around social expression. So a machine can know how to actually communicate effectively with us, and so we don't have to adapt to using a screen or using a keyboard. They can learn how to work the way that we do.

Fareed Zakaria: Now, there are people, of course, who worry about something called the singularity. That is, the moment where robots will actually become smarter than  humans, and will be able to learn and keep learning. Is that really going to happen?

Heather Knight: Do all parents feel that way about their children? I just wonder sometimes. I do feel like the way that we raise technology and the applications we use them for and the storytelling we think about in the creation of new technology will help us shape the direction that it's used. And we're not on the cusp of singularity at this very moment, but I do think that when you put people and robots together in teams, we can achieve much more than either of us can do alone. We're still very unique.

Fareed Zakaria: Heather Knight, Data, thank you very much.

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Robots are good as tools, but boring as "companions". I'll rather have animals!

    September 5, 2011 at 11:58 am | Reply
  2. David Barnett

    Toy robots have been doing this nearly a decade. So it can react to laughter? Thats what laugh meters have been doing on game shows for 50 years.

    DUDE: ITS A TAPE. A TAPE. He doesn't make anything up. If laugh then play sound 1; if no laugh then play sound 2.


    Please report on news and don't report on non-news.

    September 5, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Reply
    • Taylor Veltrop

      Did you actually read the article or just watch the video?

      September 5, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • EmptySkull

      So this is your idea of what is required of a computer science degree? sad

      September 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      And cars are just wheels, and have been for 50+ years. And cell phones are just telephones without a wire. And computers are just big calculators. And war is just people shooting at each other. That's why you don't see any news articles about any of them either.

      September 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Reply
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      March 11, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply
  3. guy smiley

    Fareed should stick to writing about things in which he has _some_ idea about ... Which seems to be nothing.

    September 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Reply
    • Olga

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      March 13, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  4. Funnybot


    Did you hear that the governor's mansion in Alabama burned down? It pretty much took out the whole trailer park.


    September 6, 2011 at 10:53 am | Reply
  5. hillbilleter

    The robot skeleton Geoff Peterson was hysterical last night on The Late Late Show on CBS, and did part of his act as a drunk robot (I had to wonder who held the bucket under him?). But in all fairness, Geoff can't get more than 10 feet from an electrical outlet, and I suspect he has WI-FI handlers backstage. The fact that his movements are limited is an ongoing gag in his skits, too ("I can't bow – I hate you!). The question in my mind is: Do I really want a mobile comic robot who can get away from a wall? Will it follow the last audience member out of the auditorium to get more input? Hmmm. But it is a cute little data cruncher.

    September 6, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  6. GravLit

    "Data" – How original and creative...

    September 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Reply
    • Jeff

      Finally, a truly hot geek!

      September 6, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  7. bailoutsos

    Let's see more of Heather.

    September 6, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      No kidding... my computer science department sure didn't look like that.

      September 6, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Reply
  8. Marvin the Paranoid Android

    How depressing. Now he will be after my job. Oh, what's the point?

    September 6, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  9. JeffinIL

    Have you heard about Data's backstage demands? He has a thing for 4-slot toasters. Sick.

    September 6, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  10. Winston5

    that was painful...

    September 6, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Reply
  11. Jon

    They just let her on the show because she's hot. If she were a geek with pimples and glasses, this story would have never seen the light of day.

    September 7, 2011 at 5:12 am | Reply
  12. onray

    This is ridiculous and this lady is like many technos lives in an ivory tower and out of touch with humanity. Comedy is based in the reconciling of truth and chaos that exist within REAL HUMAN BEINGS. This by definition can never be rivaled or replaced by a machine. You may assign attributes of comic behavior to machines, but the are only tools and nothing more.

    September 7, 2011 at 11:05 am | Reply
    • onray

      I find it sad that she would refer to a collection of circuits as a "child." Instead of putting our efforts into creating fake children, shouldn't we be taking care of the many millions of suffering REAL CHILDREN?

      September 7, 2011 at 11:14 am | Reply

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