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October 4, 2022

Electrical engineer builds robot that delivers comedy


In the first ever robot comedy show to come to SXSW, Heather Knight and her robot, Data, will be performing as a comedy team on March 9 and 10 (Photo courtesy of Heather Knight).

Heather Knight spent her college years building robots. An electrical engineer and robot scientist, Knight first became infatuated with robots while attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“Robotics interests me because making robots that can successfully interact with people requires understanding ourselves,” Knight said. “In college, those robots had character and that’s been something I’ve been striving to make sure my machines have ever since.”

Over the years, Knight has become interested in social robots that interact with humans. Her goal has been to bridge the gap between humans and robots by allowing her machines to interact with humans in a new way. 

Knight has created a new form of comedy through her social and intelligent robot, Data. They’ve come to town to present the first robotic comedy team to ever perform at South By Southwest. 

“Data is a rising robot celebrity and performer,” Knight said. “As an electrical engineer by training, I like to give robots sensors to understand what’s happening with their interaction partners, which turns out to be especially useful for stand-up comedy.”

Being a social robot, Data is an autonomous being that interacts with humans by following rules. Knight said humor and comedic settings are ideal for a social robot to learn. 

“Humor is one of the most human attributes we have. When you are learning a new language, understanding why a joke is funny is often a good measure of your cultural fluency,” Knight said. “I wanted to put a robot onstage in a context where it could learn from the audience. Humor fit the bill as the audience has detectable and frequent reactions to short and long material, so it’s a perfect space for robots to learn.”

Economics sophomore Robert Leung said Knight’s exploration with Data and robot technology plays an important role in the future of science. 

“She is merging art and technology in order to understand how robots and humans can interact,” Leung said. “A robot with artificial intelligence that can create emotions among humans is very powerful. I think this is important for the future of society because technology is only going to get more advanced.”

As robotics is a rapidly growing field and an improving art, Knight said it requires a surplus of academic knowledge in diverse fields. 

“Technology makes us have superhuman capabilities and robotics is inherently interdisciplinary,” Knight said. “At minimum you have to know a little about mechanical engineering, design, programming and electronics, but anytime you want to make robots do anything, you have to learn about the application context. For me, that context has mainly been humanity.”

That a comedy show performed by a nonhuman object that can evoke laughter from a human audience is what fascinates people. 

“The whole psychology behind robots — the idea that we create something to stimulate thought, emotion, humanity — is really interesting to me,” psychology senior Ellie Fogleman said. “I’m not sure if there are other events like this, but I hope there are. It’s an area of study that I’m sure will continue to grow as technology advances.” 

Knight is performing with Data at two events during SXSW. During her first panel, “Comedy Tech,” Knight will attempt to show audiences the connection between humor and robotics and the way they present themselves together through social media platforms such as Reddit, Tumblr and others. 

Given that technology is constantly growing and comedy is such a relatable medium to reach out to people, Leung said Knight’s shows will be worth seeing. 

“I believe the nature of this robotic comedy event will be very different from the other events going on at SXSW Interactive,” Leung said. “Many technology companies will be showcasing the latest app or website, but I don’t think many will be showing off something tangible, like a robot, that can help create laughter among people in the audience. I’d definitely like to go.” 

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Electrical engineer builds robot that delivers comedy