Oregon State University’s robots are learning to perform comedy, and researchers like Naomi Fitter, assistant professor for the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, are using this as an opportunity to teach others about how robots work.
OSU is ranked number four for the best Robotics Engineering School in the United States, according to the OSU website. According to Fitter, entertainment robots can be used to help people learn what’s going on inside the robot in an entertaining and engaging way. She takes advantage of this in her own classroom, as well as with the public. Fitter was involved in a robot comedy show hosted at the Majestic Theater last Friday, which featured Fitter’s Jon the Robot, a joke-telling robot.
“I think the entertainment robotics area holds some special role in that it’s nice to be able to engage with the public and share robotics research,” Fitter said. “Last term I brought Jon the Robot with me into class when we were talking about sensor signal processing. I can tell my students what’s going on in the background of this robotic comedy routine and it’s also entertaining and more relatable.”
Fitter said entertainment robots tie back to her research focuses, and the ways humans interact with and engage socially with robots.
“My research in general is focused on using robots to help people live healthier, happier and more productive lives,” Fitter said. “That can look a few different ways. In the past I focused mostly on things like social touch, I studied tactics a lot which has to do with the human sense of touch and how you can apply that to robots. I think about socially assistive robotics.”
Heather Knight, an assistant professor for the school of electrical engineering and computer science, said that in her eyes, entertainment robots can be used to attract different types of people into a theater. Knight also works with comedy robots. Performance robots can provide researchers with new insights about how to program robots to be more effective and interactive with people, said Knight.
“For me, the value of entertainment robots is bi-directional. This symbiosis between performance and robotics is the motivation behind my research group,” Knight said. “I would love for an everyday robot to know when it made a mistake, but also when to laugh about it, or when to apologize. I often have my robot make fun of me on stage.”
According to Professor Knight, entertainment robots offer new ways for researchers to explore, understand and add something new to a performance.
“Robots are like the sugar that makes the medicine go down. OSU is becoming a powerhouse in social robotics,” Knight said.
According to Fitter, the majority of her inspiration for robot comedy came from Professor Knight’s use of robots to engage audiences in different situations, one being comedy performance. Knight and Fitter co-ran a workshop at the 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems called “What Actors Can Teach Robots.”
Prior to joining OSU, Fitter was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California. It was then when she first began thinking about robot comedy. After being inspired by Knight, Fitter used her comedic and engineering background to create Jon the Robot. Alongside teaching and conducting robotics research, Fitter is a performing artist performing music and comedy.
“I was living in Los Angeles when I started thinking about robot comedy. As you may know, Heather Knight has been doing robot comedy for a long, long time. Even longer than I’ve been doing human comedy,” Fitter said. “So I have been inspired by her for a while. I thought while I was living in LA it might be fun to try my hand at my own robot comedy set.”
According to Professor Fitter, while she was working at USC, the university had an NAO, an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot, that she used to make her program for Jon the Robot come to life. Nao robots are a make of robot created by SoftBank Robotics that can be purchased for recreational or educational purposes.
“I borrowed one of the Nao robots and I wrote some jokes and a routine for the robot. In LA there are tons and tons of opportunities for comedy performances. It was a good environment to put something together and try things out on a lot of different people,” Fitter said.
After coming to OSU Fitter purchased an Nao robot for her lab, where she implemented an updated version of the Comedy Robot software. Jon the Robot at OSU has similar programming to the robot from LA, just a different physical body. According to Fitter, Jon the Robot tells classic jokes but from the robot perspective.
Although only in her second term as an OSU professor, Fitter continues to work with entertainment robots, focusing on robotics sensor research to work toward her goals of helping people lead better lives.