Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Robot Comic, a Real Laugher

My wife laughs at me, but she doesn’t think I’m funny. I have a lot in common with robot comics.

Scientists, engineers and industrialists are busily developing robots to ease human burdens. What could be more helpful, you ask, than a robot that makes us laugh?

Heather Knight, who is described as a social roboticist at Carnegie Mellon, is working on a robot comedian, equipped with built-in patter and a rudimentary ability to read its audience.

Heather_Knight_WB

Of course, the robot comedian is compelled by internal software to share the responses it is sensing. In a short clip aired on The Takeaway, one robot comedian elicited only tepid twitters with her lines, but got great guffaws when she commented on her joke bombs, a la Rodney Dangerfield.

Knight joined the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute last summer. Her initial projects include a robot census and a robot theatrical company, catchily called Marilyn Monrobot.

Her plan is put robots on stage next to human performers. Knight says this could be instructive to the entertainment industry and ultimately open new vistas of expression. Maybe a geeky version of ventriloquism.

All I can say, this makes me nervous. I’m already having trouble with laugh lines and now I could be outdone by a 12-inch hunk of plastic that looks like it came from Toys ‘R Us.

For now, Knight’s little robot jokester isn’t a match for Jerry Seinfeld or Lily Tomlin. But with a few more adjustments and another zillion megabits of memory, the robot could turn into Roseanne Barr.

I have nothing personally against robots. These descendants of R2-D2 and C-3PO can help humans build things, clean things and figure things out. But I have qualms about teaching robots how to make people laugh, something that strikes me as uniquely human, along with littering.

I say, let robots think away. With our kids doing so poorly on math proficiency tests, we need linear thinkers.

But once you let robots off the line from A to B, there is no telling where that could lead. It could make fears about stem cell research seem like a Jonathan Swift satire.

Robot comedians may be a novelty, but I predict their humor won’t last, even if robots manage to polish their stand-up and read audiences like Don Rickles.

No, leave the comedy to us hapless humans. Our jokes may stink and our delivery may be jittery, but we make people laugh – either with us or at us. When the robots take over, it may be the only job we’re qualified for.

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