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OSU engineering researcher examines how machines could use humor for better human interaction.

COURTESY PHOTO: OSU COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING - Naomi Fitter, Oregon State University assistant professor of robotics, used Jon the Robot comedian to find out how robots and humans could better interact through humor.And now for something completely different: A robot comedian. Really. No joke.

Oregon State University's Jon the Robot recently finished a 32-show West Coast tour, and boy are his gears tired.

But seriously folks, OSU researcher Naomi Fitter created Jon the Robot to tell jokes and act like a regular human stand-up comedian. It kind of worked. Jon's tour of comedy clubs in Oregon and the Los Angeles area tickled a few funny bones. It also provided data that scientists and engineers can use to help robots and people relate to one another via humor, OSU officials said Tuesday, May 19.

"Social robots and autonomous social agents are becoming more and more ingrained in our everyday lives," said Fitter, assistant professor of robotics in the OSU College of Engineering. "Lots of them tell jokes to engage users — most people understand that humor, especially nuanced humor, is essential to relationship building. But it's challenging to develop entertaining jokes for robots that are funny beyond the novelty level."

Fitter said that comedy performances with an audience were a way for robots to learn "in the wild" which jokes and which deliveries work, sort of like human comedians. OSU's two studies included the comedy tour that got an assist from a few Southern California comedians, who came up with material the robot could use on stage.

'You like me . . . you like me'

In the first study, Jon did 22 LA-area performances to demonstrate "that audiences found a robot comic with good timing to be significantly more funny than one without good timing," OSU said. In the second study, Jon performed 10 times in Oregon. That part of the study found that an "adaptive performance" — delivering a punch line that acknowledge an audience's reaction to a joke — wasn't necessarily more funny, but almost improved the audience's perception of jokes.

Both studies (with co-author John Vilk) were published by the Association for Computing Machinery/Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering's International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

COURTESY PHOTO: OSU COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING - Jon the Robot did a 32-show tour of Oregon and LA-area comedy clubs. His jokes seemed, well, a little robotic.The routine went something like this: Jon the Robot told audiences that he does lots of auditions, but has a hard time getting bookings. "They always think I'm too robotic," he told the audience. If the audience laughed, Jon added a "tag": "Please tell the booking agents how funny that joke was." If the joke flopped, Jon played along: "Sorry about that. I think I got caught in a loop. Please tell the booking agents that you like me … that you like me … that you like me … that you like me."

"In bad-timing mode, the robot always waited a full five seconds after each joke, regardless of audience response," Fitter said. "In appropriate-timing mode, the robot used timing strategies to pause for laughter and continue when it subsided, just like an effective human comedian would. Overall, joke response ratings were higher when the jokes were delivered with appropriate timing."

Most of the audiences were small, between 10 and 20 people, to provide data that helped researchers answer key questions about comedic social interaction, Fitter said. "Audience size, social context, cultural context, the microphone-holding human presence and the novelty of a robot comedian may have influenced crowd responses," she said. "The current software does not account for differences in laughter profiles, but future work can account for these differences using a baseline response measurement. The only sensing we used to evaluate joke success was audio readings. Future work might benefit from incorporating additional types of sensing."

Fitter said the data could help give "autonomous social agents improved humor capabilities."

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