New Scientist Article: Robot Comedian stands up well against human rivals
How funny can a robot be? Our reporter finds a robot stand-up less stressful to watch than human comics – but it would have problems with a rowdy audience
“Hello, weak-skinned pathetic perishable humans!” begins the stand-up comic. “I am here with the intent of making you laugh.”
A curiously direct beginning for most comics, but not for Robothespian. This humanoid robot, made by British company Engineered Arts, has the size and basic form of a tall, athletic man but is very obviously a machine: its glossy white face and torso taper into a wiry waist and legs, its eyes are square video screens and its cheeks glow with artificial light.
Robothespian’s first joke plays on its mechanical nature and goes down a storm with the audience at the Barbican Centre in London. “I never really know how to start,” it says in a robotic male voice. “Which is probably because I run off Windows 8.”
The performance last week was the brainchild of Pat Healey at Queen Mary University of London and colleagues, who meant it not only to entertain but also to investigate what makes live events compelling.
As we watched, cameras tracked our facial expressions, gaze and head movements. The researchers will use this information to quantify our reactions to Robothespian’s performance and to compare them with our responses to two seasoned human comics – Andrew O’Neill and Tiernan Douieb – who performed before the robot.
The routine I saw was completely pre-programmed, right down to the timing and delivery of the jokes, although Robothespian has also done one in which he read the same script but modified his delivery in response to the audience’s reactions.
Healey and his colleagues aren’t just playing for laughs: they want to find out how to make a robot socially engaging. That knowledge will be important if robots are to work in our homes, not just factories. Personally, though, I want to know just how funny a robot can be.
Robothespian certainly has some technical tricks that a human can’t match, such as voicing recorded sound. “R2-D2 swears all the time,” says Robothespian, who seamlessly produces the familiar noises of the fictional robot R2-D2 in Star Wars. “We have to bleep him out for the kids.”
Another of the robot’s advantages is more surprising: because I feel less empathy for Robothespian than for the human comics, I feel more relaxed during his performance. When the humans take to the stage, there’s an initial tension that grips me – an intense hope that they won’t disappoint – and it’s missing with Robothespian. Presumably that’s because I won’t feel awkward if a pile of metal flunks on stage.
Robothespian is harder to understand than his human counterparts, though: the emphasis isn’t always right, and with fast-moving patter, I often had to strain to catch the punchline.
Hecklers would also have an open goal with a Robothespian. On this occasion, people are too polite to talk back to him, but his human counterparts don’t fancy his chances of managing the audience comments that they have deal with in a bar or comedy club. “A good heckle put-down has to be off the cuff,” says O’Neill. Robothespian has no way of making up a reply on the fly, as everything he says is completely scripted.
Still, robot comedy is a whole new genre, so there’s much fresh material, which Robothespian’s script, written by Douieb, exploits. Following on from the Star Wars and Microsoft references, there’s a nod to Apple: “I once dated a MacBook. It didn’t work because she was all ‘i, i, i’.” But I find the robot funniest when he plays on our assumption that robots should be overly literal. “You know what really pushes my buttons?” says Robothespian. “That guy that’s in control of me,” pointing to a man sitting with a laptop at the back of the stage. “You know what really turns me on? It’s that guy again.”
O’Neill and Douieb envy Robothespian’s instant character and context, which they say is comedy gold as it both puts the audience at ease and give the performance a context. “He has a USP,” says O’Neill.
But that could also be a downside. Humanity has a diverse culture, giving us endless ways to make fun of ourselves, but if robots’ best jokes are always about machines, the material might run dry pretty quickly.
Robot comedy may not be quite as rich as human comedy, but the Barbican show proves that in certain contexts it can be funnier. Initial results from the performances last week already suggest that – as fleshly comics know – timing is key to tapping your audience’s funny bone. As Douieb says: “As a machine to make people laugh, it is well on the way.”