Letter from the Uncanny Valley 


Last Wednesday, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors, a crowd gathered around a statuesque blonde, standing just over six feet in black patent leather heels and a vintage fedora, and her much shorter, robotic sidekick. The tall blonde was roboticist Heather Knight; the robot was named Data. And he had jokes.

"This is Data, he's an aspiring actor," Knight informed the crowd. "Give him a big round of applause; he can be a little stage-shy!" She then invited audience members to pick from a series of postcards to show to Data, and he lit up: "Ah, Times Square, home of the tourists," Data quipped in a digital monotone. "A lot of tourists like the Naked Cowboy. Have you seen him? He plays guitar in a hat and underpants. Sorry, I forgot those props today."

"The ‘Postcards of New York' sketch is the first one we ever worked on," Knight told me as she hoisted Data onto her hip to take him to the second staging of their performance. "It led to everything else." And that "everything else" is a lot. Knight has shown off Data's stand-up routine at a TED talk, set up collaborations with popular human comedians—from Reggie Watts to an upcoming stint with Eugene Mirman—and even had him trying dance moves at the first ever Robot Film Festival last month.

Despite his rising popularity, Data's still a little green when it comes to stand-up: let's just say that his timing and delivery are, well, robotic. But that's all a learning experience, says Knight. By getting up in front of an audience, Data is learning about human social character, which will eventually help him understand how to interact more naturally. "Data can tell a joke and use it to explore the audience," says Knight. "Is this a young audience? Is it an old audience? Have they been drinking?" She chuckles. "Well, maybe not directly about drinking, but how boisterous are they?" By registering the audience's response to each of the riffs and stories he has stored in his joke-bank, Data can start to hone in—sort of like Netflix—on what his audience likes.

When she's not hosting robotic stand-up, Knight is a post-doc in the cutting-edge fields of personal and social robotics at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, where she works on machines "that engage us on more than a tool level, more like a peer or colleague." But her real passion lies in taking robots out of the lab and into the limelight. So, last year, Knight founded Marilyn Monrobot labs here in New York and now lives part-time in Clinton Hill.

"There are techniques that we can adopt directly from the world of performance to the world of social robots," Knight explains, noting that robots could stand to gain a little perspective from the entertainment industry. "Theater is a discipline that's thought through what expression and movement means, and how you relate to a partner on stage," she says, and that emotional expertise could help foster the development of artificial social intelligence.

Knight hopes to one day see robots play a bigger role in our everyday lives, "whether that's in education, assistance in the home, or keeping the elderly independent for longer," she says, noting that this can't happen without first exposing robots to us and us to them more directly. But Knight confesses that any highly functional, humanoid social robots are still technologically far, far away—to the relief of paranoid sci-fi fans, I'm sure. For now, any results that lead to finer-tuned social intelligence could be built into our existing technology, be it a more emotionally sensitive GPS system, a more user-friendly smart phone… or maybe better jokes for Data.


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