Katevas developed an algorithm for comic timing: tell a joke, wait two seconds to measure audio feedback from the crowd, and pause for laughter, holding for no more than five seconds. If the audience responds positively, encourage them; if not, RoboThespian might say “Hmm” or “Take your time.”
RoboThespian was also embedded with software called SHORE (Sophisticated High-speed Object Recognition Engine) to detect faces in the audience and identify their expressions. The program lets him know whether the crowd is enjoying themselves. If not, RoboThespian could look at them, point, and tell a joke at their expense. “If the whole show is bombing and everything is going terribly wrong,” Jackson said. “Should the robot change course, or should it just keep going like a dumb machine?”
Comedy is an art of precision. “The difference between an amateur and a professional is that it feels off the cuff, but it’s something I’ve worked very hard on,” the comedian Rob Delaney, the author of an eponymous new book, told me. “I have a narrative arc that I want to adhere to. Sure, I’ll make changes, but it’ll be eighty-per-cent similar.” He added, “I do a thing that a robot could do, which is: I listen to the room. That, I think, could be learned.”
Below is a YouTube video of RoboThespian performing live at a comedy club.
Okay, let's be honest (the robot shouldn't have any hard feelings, right?), Louis C.K. has less to worry about from RoboThespian than Gary Kasparov or Ken Jennings did from Big Blue and Watson.
Still, how and why the robot falls short is fascinating and instructive as to both the art of comedy and what it means to be human. A couple observations:
- The vulnerability of the comedian is often critical to a joke. Since a robot can't really empathize with human emotions, it's difficult for us to buy that the robot really understands the pain of human situations he might discuss in a joke.
- I still felt uncomfortable for the robot when some of his jokes fell flat. Maybe I was projecting my empathy for the programmer onto the robot? Perhaps a robot comedian can only be successful if it can first establish a persona or believable personal history. Maybe that can be as simple as making light of how badly he had bombed early in his career?
- As outlined above, a big hurdle for robots which also applies in comedy is the ability to read other humans. What if all the humans in the crowd were fitted with bio-sensors that fed data up to the robot in real-time?
- It might be easier to build a credible cartoon or animated comedian than a robot comedian. The stiff movements of the robot, its severely limited facial expression, and its lack of vocal inflection seem to leave it best suited to deliver deadpan jokes. It would also be helpful if those deadpan jokes were either really intelligent or naive. A robot of average intelligence is not interesting. Maybe feed it from the joke library of Mitch Hedberg?