How Data left the lab and became a comedian with some pretty good material
April 24, 2012 10:57 AM
Heather Knight, Dan Wilcox and Data, the robot.
By Adrian McCoy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Heather Knight's research explores the terrain at the intersection of robotics and entertainment, art and technology.
Data is a robot with feet planted firmly on either side of that intersection.
Ms. Knight's robotics research -- and her performances with Data -- have put her in the national spotlight, including a segment on CNN's The Next List, which profiles innovators in technology, science and social change. She's in Pittsburgh, working on her doctoral degree in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.
On Friday, robotic technology and performance will star together in "Cyborg Cabaret," a variety show-style performance that explores human, robot and cyborg relationships, and the way technology is transforming society. Ms. Knight and Dan Wilcox, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon's fine arts program, are hosting and taking part in the performance, along with Data.
"Cyborg Cabaret -- Passion, Terror and Interdependence" will feature eight performance pieces, including a barbershop quartet consisting of robot arms created by Golan Levin, associate professor of art and director of Carnegie Mellon's STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. Ms. Knight's piece will feature "research-grade robot choreography." Julia Cahill, a senior fine arts student, has created a cyborg burlesque.
Mr. Wilcox's "Robot Rumble" pits different robot characters against one another in a wrestling-style competition. The piece combines video and live performance with actors portraying real-world robotic devices such as Carnegie Mellon's Crusher combat vehicle, the Honda ASIMO humanoid robot and Google's self-driving car.
His own work also merges art with technology. His robot cowboy performance project combines music and wearable computers to create a electronic one-man band. "I sort of live between two worlds, and I can put on different hats," he said.
"Cyborg Cabaret" has opened new creative doors for him. "It's a variety show in presentation and also in how it's put together. This is a collaboration. For us it was really important that we start a community and throw out ideas," Mr. Wilcox said. "Everyone is engaged because it's their own work as opposed to doing someone else's."
Ms. Knight grew up in Massachusetts. She did undergraduate and graduate work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 2008 with a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science. At MIT, she became captivated by social robots and the idea of new technologies that makes people's lives better.
After graduation, she worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and went on to work for the French firm Aldebaran Robotics, a company that developed the NAO platform of humanoid robots. One of these was Data -- named after the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" character. Data returned to the U.S. with her, and it was the beginning of a longtime collaboration.
Data is a robot stand-up comedian with some pretty good material. At around 2 feet tall, he has a round face that reminds people more of a cute toddler than a machine. This childlike appeal affects the way people react to him. "The design definitely makes an enormous difference in how a robot is initially perceived," Ms. Knight said. He even has a Twitter account -- @robotinthewild. Sample tweet: "Human Robot Interaction is all about getting the humans up to speed."
Ms. Knight launched her own company -- New York-based Marilyn Monrobot, an umbrella organization for producing socially intelligent robot performances and sensor-based electronic art.
She and Data have done impromptu street performances as well as more formal presentations. During Data's comedy routines, audience members were given paddles with different colored sides. They held up one side if they thought a joke was funny and the other if it wasn't. The robot is able to monitor these signals and can choose its comedy material based on their responses, the way Netflix uses a subscriber's choices to recommend other movies or TV shows.
Ms. Knight came to Carnegie Mellon in 2010 to start working on her doctorate in robotics. "For me, it was important to be at a university that had depth in engineering and in the humanities. I was excited to hear that they had such a strong drama program and fine arts program." That has proved to be fertile ground for interdisciplinary collaborations such as "Cyborg Cabaret."
The wide range of robotics research at Carnegie Mellon was another big draw. "I get to play with an interdisciplinary team of people, even within robotics."
At Carnegie Mellon, Data was used for a research project on designing robot tour guides, which observed how well he engaged visitors as he pointed to different objects.
When people think of robots, they think of their common applications -- on factory assembly lines and in hazardous environments. "The stereotype is dirty, dangerous and dull," Ms. Knight said.
But robots have much more potential. Ms. Knight's research is focused on social robotics -- designing robots that can interact easily with people in their own environments -- like homes, hospitals or public places. "Social robotics in general is about interface design. It's about designing robots for everyday human environments and experiences.
"How can you make an interface that meets people in the middle? If we're going to have a robot operating in our environment, if we can communicate with it in a way that we find natural, then you don't need to train the user," Ms. Knight said.
Fine-tuning the way a robot moves -- its gestures, motions and speeds -- are all elements that can make these interfaces more effective. Ms. Knight turned to human actors for their expertise. A roboticist can learn a lot from watching a highly skilled actor or dancer, she said. "They're sort of the human professionals at that extra-special stuff." For example, an Oscar-winning performance can provide clues for designing effective social robots. "They've brought something to their performance that went beyond what was the obvious. They're good at honing those really fine details, which comes up when you're trying to design these special robots."
Ms. Knight is putting robots on screen as well as on stage. She is the founder of the Robot Film Festival. The second annual festival is scheduled for July in New York. A selection of films from the 2011 festival was screened in San Francisco last week. "Film is much more forgiving than the stage for making a robot actor because you can do multiple takes."