Robots and comedy may seem like an unlikely pairing of passions, but this is Heather Knight’s life. Knight is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotic Institute in Pittsburgh and running Marilyn Monrobot Labs in New York City where she puts on robot theatrical performances and has founded the Robot Film Festival. Prior to embarking on her doctoral research, Knight worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Synn Labs and Aldebaran Robotics. She is also an MIT alum, where she earned her bachelor and masters degrees in electrical engineering and computer science (oh yeah, she also minored in mechanical engineering). If you don’t feel like an underachiever yet, read on.
I’m interested in how robots can integrate in everyday human worlds, especially where that involves character and social interactions. Recently, I have begun an effort to learn from acting theorists and the performing arts in order to develop the capacity of robots to incorporate expression, motivation, gesture and behaviors. As I was starting out the project with one main robot, and wanted to put something on stage right away, I had my bot try standup comedy. It was a fortuitous coincidence that that was the first thing that I happened to implement, but gosh, comedy is awesome!
Why is comedy important to robots?
It turned out that judging the audience’s reactions is more explicit in comedy, which is great because I wanted the robots to be able to learn from the audience. Unlike the subtle reactions during a Shakespeare play, people laugh out loud, talk among themselves and shout. With comedy, you have more flexibility to change up the scenes and switch in and out content. That means the robot can get a feel for a particular audience and cater its material appropriately, or could try different gestures, tics or even rhythms to see what gets the biggest laugh. It is a very interactive audience experience, which is something that is important for me because I am interested in human/robot interaction. I like playing with the interface.
How long have you been doing this?
I have been making social robots for about nine years. It all started when I was a freshman at MIT. Though I had done various interactive art pieces and installations over the years, the robot theatre twist is relatively new. I started applying for my first grants about three years ago, mostly unsuccessfully. Finally, I decided this was an area that I believed in strongly enough to do it full time, so about a year ago, I went back to school. I began the Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute with the intention of writing a thesis on the topic. Even better, I applied for and recently won a National Science Foundation fellowship for robot theatre, so now I even have some resources to support the effort. It also helps to have a great institution behind me; CMU has one of the largest robotics research programs in the country.
Where did you see yourself before studying at MIT? Was this your goal when you went to college?
When I was in high school, I was trying to decide between becoming a writer or becoming an engineer. I knew I really loved making things and loved being creative but I didn’t know exactly what engineering was at the time. I wasn’t exactly an artsy student then, I kind of became that later. I actually didn’t realize how creative engineering could be until I went to college and actually started learning how to build things by being a mechanical engineer. I loved being in machine shops and seeing a 3-D model become a physical object that could move and, even better, interact with people. There is something special about the physicality of robots. That’s part of what makes them social, they share our space. These days I’m all about taking that idea further – can technology be charismatic? I don’t want to replace people with robots, but rather to make machines come to us.
You obviously have had a ton of accomplishments so far. What are you most proud of?
There are a lot of things I could put on paper and might look good on a resume, but one of the things that I am most proud of is that I managed to stick with this idea of exploring performance and robotics the past several years. It’s been a winding path, but I was dogged with actually sticking to the dreams I want to pursue, despite opportunities to change course, compromise or settle along the way. I’m proud that I stuck it out and am starting to make things happen. I’m not there yet, but doors and opportunities are opening up that I only dreamed about before.
What are the biggest differences between humans and robots?
Computers and robots are foreign entities from all of us. They are great at looking at huge amounts of data or connecting to the internet, but are pretty bad at just kicking back on the couch and watching a television show. They don’t know what enjoyment means. That’s why humans and robots make great teams, they bring totally different skillsets to the table. Robots are the absolute worst at the open play and creativity of being a four-year-old, just running around just constantly learning. They start out as cloistered physicists but what we’re trying to do now is get machines to act younger and “sillier.” Another grand challenge would be to navigate a cocktail party.
How can Daily BR!NK readers help you out?
Come check out the Robot Film Festival I’m throwing this summer in NYC! It’s at the Three Legged Dog Art and Technology Center July 16-17. It is the first Robot Short Film Festival ever, as far as I can tell, there will be a red carpet “Botskers” award ceremony and we’re opening the Spike Jonze short, I’m Here. Besides having a great time and enjoying the films, art and live performances, we are looking to create an interdisciplinary community that can make awesome things together in the future. Shameless plug: Tickets are currently on sale! Also, as I ramp up things with my robot theatre company, Marilyn Monrobot, stay-tuned for future performances!