Comedians in clubs getting data: OSU prof. takes robot on the road

Special Reports

Jon the Robot delights audiences, could help shape future of AI

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Naomi Fitter has performed stand-up comedy for about seven years, but lately, she’s been holding the microphone for another entertainer: Jon the Robot.

“Thank you, you’ve been a great audience,” Jon deadpans at the end of a show. “If you like me, please book me and help me take your jobs.”

It’s not just a gimmick, but a research endeavor that could shape our future interactions with robots and artificial intelligence.

Fitter works at Oregon State University as assistant professor of robotics. Last year, she took Jon the Robot on a 32-show tour in Oregon and the Los Angeles area. Along with a team of LA-based comedians, she wrote jokes from a robot perspective. They also wrote positive or negative tags that Jon could quip back with depending on how the audience reacted to the jokes.

“There’s a joke about, ‘Don’t you hate it when you’re trying to solve the inverse kinematics equation to pick up a cup and then you get error 453 no solution found? Don’t you hate that?’” Fitter explained when she spoke with KOIN 6 News on Monday. “So if the audience laughed, the robot might follow up with, ‘I’m glad you also hate that’ … And if the audience didn’t laugh at the joke, it might just comment on how there aren’t robots in the theater.”

Jon also had two different timing modes with which Fitter experimented. In the “bad timing” mode, Jon waited five whole seconds after each joke before moving on to the next one, regardless of the audience’s reaction. In “good timing” mode, the robot reads the room and moves on to the next joke when the laughter subsides like a human comedian would.

Researchers recorded the audio from the audience and analyzed the reaction later. Different scores were assigned depending on whether the audience laughed in chorus, if laughter was scattered or just coming from one person, or if there was relative silence. As it turned out, timing made all the difference.

OSU robotics and AI researcher Naomi Fitter (photo courtesy Johanna Carson/OSU)

Fitter said while the adaptive tags improved audience reaction to individual jokes, the ability to have good timing was the most helpful over entire performances.

The results were published in “Comedians in Cafes Getting Data: Evaluating Timing and Adaptivity in Real-World Robot Comedy Performance.”

Co-authoring the study is none other than Fitter’s husband, John. The robot isn’t named after him, though.

“At the last minute, before the first performance of the robot, we were trying to think of a generic male programmer name and that was our filler name,” she said. After they started gathering data, they didn’t want to change it. Now, people sometimes ask how Jon’s doing and, depending on the setting, Fitter said she doesn’t always know which one they’re talking about.

Funny robots 2.0

Aside from garnering laughs and doing something unique, though, what’s the point of all this?

“I think you can look at it in multiple spheres,” Fitter said, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re not as often able to go out and enjoy performing arts in the wild. Could we make home robots funnier or more entertaining to watch? Or capitalize on the performers themselves not being human or able to communicate diseases? But that’s a little sillier.”

A more widely applicable use for the research could be with everyday robots and artificial intelligence like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana.

“Most of these systems don’t yet have very good senses of humor,” Fitter said. As we interface more and more with robots going into the future, the interactions could become “more entertaining and pleasant and maybe even more engaging,” she added.

Jon’s not gone

Fitter isn’t ditching her plastic partner anytime soon. Even after they finished collecting data for the study, she and Jon kept taking the stage at comedy shows in Oregon. Jon even did a duet as A Bot and Costello, singing “Let’s Power the Whole Thing Off” with comedian Sarah Hagen.

Of course, the in person performances are on hiatus now, but she said the Majestic Theater in Corvallis is running virtual comedy shows. She hasn’t quite decided yet if she’ll do robot comedy in any of those, but said Jon will get called back eventually.

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