Rise of the congenial machines

Robots and their human makers flock to St. Paul for the third annual Robotics Alley Conference & Expo.

Emily Eveland

Before he began his stand-up routine, the small-statured comedian sat with his elbows propped on his knees and glanced around at the audience.

“Hello, everybody,” he said. “Can you hear me all right?”

He placed his right hand on the floor for support and lifted himself up with some effort. After telling his first joke with a certain mechanical sluggishness, he paused to gauge the audience’s reaction. Was he nervous?

Nah, he’s just a robot.

Data, created by social roboticist Heather Knight, is the world’s first robotic stand-up comedian and one of a few non-human guests slated to appear at tonight’s Robotics Alley conference in St. Paul.

Minnesota High Tech Association and Edina-based ReconRobotics, Inc., founded Robotics Alley to raise awareness of the local robotics community and facilitate communication between Midwestern roboticists.

“[The] purpose of Robotics Alley is to showcase a lot of this really exciting work that’s been done in the Twin Cities and why it’s an emerging global center for the industry,” said Andrew Borene, Robotics Alley’s executive director and ReconRobotics’ director of corporate development.

Among the topics featured at this year’s conference are the ethics and policies of the unmanned vehicle, the use of robotics in medicine and the laws behind ever-controversial drones.

“Regulation-wise, we’re having to seriously take a look at this stuff,” said Mike Davin, editor of the Minnesota-based online publication The Business of Robotics.

Recent advances in technology and robotics have made for big changes in the entertainment industry as well. Unmanned aerial machines are being used in place of helicopters for overhead scenes in movies, and robotic cameras have been used for shooting in films like the recent “Gravity.”

Knight’s interest lies at the intersection of robotics and entertainment. As a social roboticist, she’s interested in programming robots with human qualities to improve communication between humans and machines.

“The cool things about these kinds of machines is that they tap into our psychology,” she said.

Knight works for the social robotics company Marilyn Monrobot Labs and the Robot Film Festival, which she founded in 2011.

When she’s not studying for her doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University, she’s working on projects like the Rube Goldberg machine featured in the OK Go music video for “This Too Shall Pass.”  

As part of the Robotics Alley conference, Knight has compiled 50 minutes of footage from the Robot Film Festival that will be shown Tuesday at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. The festival welcomes submissions from anyone with a love for robotics.

“We really try to emphasize positive storytelling,” Knight said of the festival. “It’s just a chance to get people thinking about the ever-heightening role of technology in our lives.”

For some, the thought of robots becoming an integral part of human life sounds like a one-way ticket to total annihilation.

“Here in the United States, we have this vision that robots become evil and they’re a threat to humanity,” Borene said.

Thanks to movies like “Artificial Intelligence: AI” and “I, Robot,” robots are commonly believed to be machines that walk and talk just like human beings.

“People think they have arms and legs,” said Alan Bignall, ReconRobotics president and CEO. “Obviously, that’s designed to be attractive and scary in the movie sense, but how practical is it? Not very practical at all.”

So what exactly is a robot? Davin said the definition varies wildly depending on who you’re talking to, but he said machines must possess certain amounts of intelligence and autonomy to be considered robots.

“I don’t think you always need to have a robot look like a person to be able to communicate in a social way,” Knight said. “I think as soon as we see a moving machine, we naturally lend it character.”

Though Knight’s primary interest lies in implanting human characteristics like humor and creativity into machines, she said she doesn’t think robots are headed toward sentience.

“It’s such a simplification of human behavior,” she said. “I’ve never seen a compelling example of that.”

There’s still some motherly love in the interactions between Knight and Data, who gathers audience feedback to improve his jokes.

“He can be mad at me,” Knight said. “I’ll try to pat his head, and he’ll be like, ‘Don’t touch me!’”


What: Robotics Alley Conference & Expo
When: 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday
Where: Saint Paul RiverCentre, 175 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
Cost: $75 for student one-day passes, $145 for student two-day passes. The exhibit floor is free for students Wednesday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.

What: Robot Film Festival
When: 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Science Museum of Minnesota, 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
Cost: $10-20