Quirks & Quarks

A stand-up robot understands that timing is the secret to comedy

A joke telling robot just finished 32 shows where it got a lot of laughs, but also a lot of data that can help scientists better understand human-robot interactions

Joke telling robot helps scientists better understand human-robot interactions

Up close with Jon The Robot at the Ha Ha Harvest Comedy Festival in Portland. (Jaren George)
Listen8:02

Originally published May 23, 2020

What do you get when robotics engineer and a joke-telling robot enters a bar? Live comedy, of course! 

Naomi Fitter, wanted to combine her personal hobby doing stand-up comedy with her background as a robotics engineer.  The result was an autonomous robotic stand-up comic that just wrapped up 32 show tour. 

Jon the Robot  got big laughs from audiences and a lot of data for scientists trying to help robots and people understand each other a little better.

Jon the Robot jokes about his "robotic" delivery on stage, but that's the point, according to Fitter, a professor in the School of Engineering at the University of Oregon.  Fitter programs Jon, but also writes the jokes, books his stand-up gigs and holds the microphone for him as he performs.

Jon The Robot takes on L.A.

In the early performances in comedy clubs mostly in Los Angeles and a few in Oregon, Jon was simply programmed to wait five seconds between jokes without any consideration of audience reaction.

But just like a human comedians need stage time to hone their performances, Jon too had to learn the art of comedic timing.

L.A. audiences are tough, Fitter told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

Jon needed to boost its level of comedic intelligence — to learn based on how an audience responded when and how to deliver the next line or what joke to tell.

Just another gig for Jon The Robot. A robot generates a few jokes for an audience and a lot of data for scientists. (Naomi Fitter)

Adaptive timing and 'reading the room'

Fitter programmed Jon with what she calls, "adaptive timing." This enabled Jon to hear the laughter and wait for it to die down before delivering a follow up joke. 

If nobody laughed, Jon would recognize that the joke may not have worked and needed explaining, a way, as Fitter said, comics often try to get the audience "back on side."

And now, even though its choreography is still completely planned by Fitter, Jon can change up its act according to audience reaction.

Fitter said she's hoping Jon's success as a comedian will help scientists like her better understand human-robot interactions.

Produced and written by Mark Crawley.

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