Giving Robots A Stroke Of Humanity: Interview With Social Roboticist Heather Knight

Photo by Zack DeZon.

Heather Knight, a self-proclaimed “Social Roboticist,” has long been an advocate of robots “in the wild.” The founder of New York-based Marilyn Monrobot Labs is working to integrate socially interactive robots into the world—participating in everything from the entertainment industry to education to hospitals and virtually every sphere you can think of. Currently pursuing her doctoral research at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, Knight is also an alumnus of the MIT Media Lab (where she earned her bachelor and masters degrees), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Synn Labs (where she worked on the Rube Goldberg machine for one of OK GO’s music videos).

At a TEDWomen conference in late 2010, she presented a stand-up comedian robot, Data, who was able to try out his jokes on an audience for the first time—adding to the growing number of performing robots we’re starting to see engaging with and alongside humans. From the looks of him, Data could be cousins with the bots that danced in our Coachella tent, which makes sense as Knight was an engineer for Aldebaran Robotics back in 2007.

Now, the impressive roboticist is working on a new project—as the founder and executive director/producer of the first Robot Film Festival, which debuts in New York City on July 16-17. The festival will showcase Spike Jonze’s robot love story I’m Here (with other crowd-submitted short robot films) alongside a selection of workshops and live performances from both “human and digital entertainers.” We chatted with Knight over email to ask about the evident affection she has for robots and her hopes for a festival that maintains to be the first of its kind.

The Creators Project: What was your first experience with a robot?
Heather Knight:
The first robot installation I worked on was part of the MIT Media Lab’s Public Anemone exhibit at SIGGRAPH 2002. The structure looked like it was straight out of Disneyland, a large fiberglass ‘cave’ with lots of interactive objects. The walls and lower surface were populated by glowing night creatures: drum-crystals, fiber-optic tubeworms and wall crystals, all independently pulsing with the music and responding to the people around it. The starring robot of the installation was Public Anenome, a robotic creature inspired by primitive life. By day, Public Anemone is awake and interacts with the waterfall, pond and other aspects of its surroundings.

I tend to be an active person, I would rather play a sport than watch it, and that’s how I got into robotics as well—by building them. My role on that project was to machine and construct the fiberoptic tubeworms, which had been designed by Dan Stiehl, and were inspired by their namesake sea creatures. They consisted of fiberoptic ‘tentacles’ at the end of a motored structure that paired with a capacitive sensor under its shell that could sense the proximity of a person’s hand by retracting and changing color. I was a freshman at MIT at the time, and it was my first robotics project!

Fiberoptic Tubeworms

What are you hoping to achieve with Marilyn Monrobot Labs? And how did you choose the name of your company, besides the fact that it’s a clever play on words?
Marilyn Monrobot is a Robot Theater Company, founded to investigate the intersection of robotics and entertainment, and those two metaphors are heavily embedded in the name. As a member of the technology art collective Syyn Labs, at the time, we’d been increasingly working with the entertainment community in Los Angeles, and I’d also been greatly inspired by some of Guy Hoffman’s work using robots in performance while we were students together at the MIT Media Lab. So far, we’re largely a creative company, working on robot comedy performances, creating a collaboration space between technologists and artists and throwing in the occasional sensor-based interactive installation and Rube Goldberg Machine. I came up with the name late one afternoon, during the long walk between my office at NASA/JPL and the parking lot in Pasadena, CA.

Working with robots has helped reveal to me the complexity of being human. I also believe that the stage—with its constrained environment, the ability to embed sensors in the space, a playfulness that can draw audiences and its repeatability—is a great space to innovate and improve robot expression and interactivity. It ain’t easy to charm an audience, as my robot Data will tell you. But he’s got his cybernetic heart set on becoming a robot celebrity and I pity the fool that gets in the way of a young robot’s dreams.

How would you define a ‘social roboticist?’
I build social robots, which are robots that can communicate with us on human terms. So rather than forcing us to use a keyboard or screen, as a ‘social roboticist,’ I help machines learn subtle things like the contextual significance of tone of voice or how to move in a way where we can better understand their intention. Readability is important for when bots are in shared spaces. For example, in hallways, who should go through the door first? People are less likely to want a robot in their home if they perceive it as rude. What is an appropriate model for politeness, friendliness, alarm, curiosity and engagement? How can we design a system so you understand it is seeking out an interaction, ready to take you to the location in the store you want to go? Generally, the cues we look for to begin an interaction or assess the current state are nonverbal.

As you increase the complexity of that interaction, we get into abstract ideas like the characteristics of the robot’s persona. What kind of robot would you want to have on your laser tag team? Playing games with your children? I’m very interested in the role of character on long-term interactions and how we might use collaborations with the arts, especially performers, to learn how to better utilize gesture and speech in human-readable, and even charismatic ways. meets Heather Knight

If you could build any sort of cyborg with no technical or financial restrictions what it do and look like?
Cyborg huh? Well, I’m more into metaphorical cyborgs, teams of robots and humans that work together to accomplish what neither could do alone. Most of the readers will have heard of chess champion Garry Kasparov and his defeat by the computer Deep Blue in 1997. Of course it was using a totally different strategy than Kasparov was, calculating every possible course of action, playing the numbers game. What I find exciting is that, since then, there [are] apparently a league of human-computer chess teams that call themselves ‘Centaurs’ and compete against each other like doubles in tennis, competing at a level that no human or computer could ever achieve on its own. Sounds like Jeopardy might be next in line.

Watson on Jeopardy

Why did you decide to put on a Robot Film Festival?
It’s the first festival of its kind. I founded the Robot Film Festival to inject a sense of playfulness into traditional science and engineering and to explore new frontiers for robotics before the technology is even possible. It is a two-day celebration of robots on screen and in performance. Opening with the Spike Jonze short I’m Here, the event will feature screenings of juried selections from open call submissions, live performances by robot entertainers, a red-carpet awards ceremony, workshops and a Sunday afternoon cookout. We are interested in exploring the modern relationships between mankind, technology and nature. Criteria for submitted films included relevance to robotics, storytelling, length, depiction of interaction between robots and people, overall entertainment value, inspiration of future technologies, creativity and robot design.

What has been the most challenging aspect of planning the festival, since it’s the first of its kind? Has anybody short-circuited on you?
The race toward the submissions finish line a few weeks ago did feel like a bit of a NASCAR race, there were the contenders, the people that seemed to be in the lead, the projects that got out of control, the stories that seemed so good in theory that didn’t read so well on camera, and the underdogs and the people you’d never heard of suddenly in the race. In the end we had about 74 submissions and accepted about two-thirds of the entries. There were some tough decisions, but in the spirit of the larger festival and to ensure entertainment value for all of you, we were glad to be able to include so many!

Another challenge I had personally, was that on top of everything else, I am also a full-time student. I returned to school last fall at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, and while, as a doctoral student, I do have a fair amount of autonomy in choosing the subject of my research, it took some convincing to justify to my advisor why a Robot Film Festival would aid robotics as a field. I have a more complete list on the site, but my final list of goals included: enabling technologists to explore the downstream impact of their work, piloting an intersection between narrative and robotics that could inform my robot theater work, encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, attracting people to the field that might not initially expect to be interested in robotics, and, one of my favorites, harness the creativity of non-roboticists to expose new insights about robot character, behavior systems and physical design.

That particular story has a happy ending. My advisor, Reid Simmons, is now a member of our jury committee, and the Director of the Robotics Institute, Matt Mason, also submitted a great film that will be part of the festival. None of this would be possible without the huge and talented team that has been working with me to put this on, theater production company and co-producers Magic Future Box, fellow roboticist and video coordinator Marek Michalowski (and yes, he will bring his Keepon robot!), national organizer of Hacks/Hackers and jury coordinator Chyrs Wu, our ITP art curators and all of our awesome advisors and jury members!

Marek Michalowski’s Keepon robot

Filmmakers were asked to submit one to eight minute short films with just a single requirement—feature a robot as one of the main characters. What kinds of short films did you receive? What were some of the most outrageous ones?
Gosh, did I mention how many submissions we received? So much great stuff! You know there’s going to be a Botsker Award Ceremony, right? It’s our version of the Robot Oscars. Categories will include: Best Robot Actor, Best Laughs, Best Robot Dance, Most Inspiring, Most Impactful, Most Uncanny, Best Robot Future and more! We’re very excited for the red carpet, the technology and art installations during its opening cocktail parties and wonder who will be the best dressed robot on site!

How is your perception of robots changing with each new endeavor?
Percolating an idea through Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour [rule] creates transformations that are hard to track but extraordinarily impactful. I am very conscious of the limitations of robotic technology; from intelligence to speech detection to simulating human behaviors when we don’t even understand ourselves. I’m also conscious of how constraints can breed creativity. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from artists, it is that a clear vision can be the most impactful. The simpler and more intuitive the interface, the more understandable the controls and intended use, the more likely we will be able to use it properly, enjoy the experience, and tweet it to our friends. I think the ‘Aha’ moment is important: as data visualization artist Jer Thorp once said, projects should be one part ‘ooh’ and another part ‘aah’—something you learn and something that inspires you. If a sock puppet, marionette, or simple animation can be expressive, certainly we should be able to come up with a compelling behavior system for a simplified robotic character. Noh Theater is another big source of inspiration for me.

Besides the entertainment industry, where else do you see robots fitting into society, if at all?
My current work at Marilyn Monrobot uses collaborations with the entertainment industry to further social and interaction technologies that will allow charismatic machines to become part of everyday life and society. A robot at a cocktail party probably isn’t going to be able to carry out the fluent banter and turn taking that we find with each other, but as a computation device, it might be able to catalyze interactions between people at the party that have interests in common. Already, applications I have been working on included robots in a hospital setting that might bridge the gap between an intimidating uniformed doctor and the needs and comfort of a sick or visiting child.

There’s also a lot of great work going into the use of robotic technology in autism therapy. Robots present a simpler and less overwhelming set of behaviors that autistic children feel more comfortable with, and may present a patient and repeatable stepping stone to general social interactions with other people. Paro Robotic Seals have also been used in nursing homes in Japan, responding to touch much like a pet, as a device to break the ice and increase conversation and friendships between the people living there. Finally, Korean classrooms have been increasingly using a friendly robots to increase excitement about learning English and aid in the instruction. Robots are a great way to grab people’s attention and make things fun. Even undergraduate computer scientists in the USA tend to stick with the field for longer after graduation if they have had robotics as part of their curriculum. I don’t want to replace people with robots, but I’m very excited about replacing technology that pushes us apart with technology that also brings us together. Welcome to the future.

Paro Robotic Seals