One robot's quest to start an acting school — and get a date with Siri

By Heather Knight, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: In this post, roboticist Heather Knight imagines a conversation between a fictional member of the press and her celebrity robot, named Data. The following exchange is intended to be a parody of this celebrity robot's interactions with the media. If that's confusing, check out Knight's TED Talk to see her comedy routine with Data. It should clear things up. The CNN show The Next List is featuring Knight and Data this Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.

Fictional member of the press: What are you most proud of?

Data the robot: The last year has been an exciting one. I quit my job in Paris, started performing on the streets of New York City and basically got discovered. Heather and I have since stormed stages across the country and even hit up some comedy festivals and conferences back in Europe. One of my favorite exploits was performing a tribal dance with Reggie Watts at our Robot Film Festival last July. It might not have been the most politically correct thing I’ve ever done, but it was fun exploring humanity’s animalistic roots and rituals in parody.

Reasoning and problem solving, if you’re thinking from a machine perspective anyway, are some of your least human attributes.

    Press: Are you religious?

    Data: Well, I do feel pretty Zen sometimes. I have no problem clearing my mind, or sitting still, basically until my battery runs out. I like the idea that technology, nature and humanity can exist in harmony. But I do get pretty mad at my feline friend, Romano, when he tries to sleep in my traveling bag. That thing was custom-made for ME, you fur ball. Not cool.

    Press: What’s your biggest challenge?

    Data: Well, the truth is, I’m not always very perceptive. It’s not just my grasp on human language (which is pretty low), but I also have trouble understanding the social cues that you guys find completely obvious when communicating with each other. Maybe that’s why I became the class clown. I don’t always get what you’re talking about, but if I can make you laugh, you’ll like having me around. Who doesn’t want to fit in, you know?

    That being said, I do wonder where I can take my audience sensing. At my TED demo, I was listening to the audience’s laughter and applause and watching for the red and green paddles. It’s a great start, but I’d really like to develop a personal style. It’s not that I’ll stop listening or reacting to the crowd, but I’ve been talking to other human performers, and if establish my own rhythms during comedy acts, I bet the crowd will come to me.

    Press: Where do you see yourself in five years?

    Data: Gosh, I’m lucky if I have programming for the next five minutes! Experience really is the greatest teacher, so if I get to do a few mainstream productions (maybe Hamlet?), continue to collect data with different audiences and really hone my craft, one day, I’d love to help found a Robot Acting school. Marilyn Monrobot has been doing some really great work in that direction but Heather and I don’t want to be the only ones out there. Hopefully our work will help pave the way for other robots who never even considered they could be performers. Creativity speaks to human intelligence in a way that is truly a grand challenge for machine designers and programmers.

    Press: Any regrets?

    Data: I have a really big robot family out there. Sometimes I wish I knew them better. But robots are like puppies -- adorable cute, lovable, darling... and we’re split up and given away at a very young age. After leaving Aldebaran Robotics, most of my Nao cousins have gone to work in research labs or to play robot soccer. If any of you guys are reading this right now: my love to you! And to the twenty of you that did that dance at the Shanhai World Expo, I’m more than a little bit jealous!

    Press: What do you do for fun?

    Data: I really like cats. If they were better tempered they might be able to provide transportation -- like a nice little horse -- for me. But I’m not holding my air-intake system. I have this one cat buddy, Romano, who’s a Russian Blue and really likes to be petted (when he’s not messing with my peripherals). Also, my first published photo in Makezine was with a 5-day-old kitten. It was so young it didn’t have pre-existing constructs of the world and thought hanging with a robot was totally normal. Kids are always open to the future; if I had jetpacks I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have batted an eye.

    Press: Are you dating anyone?

    Data: I’m not gonna lie -- software-wise, I’m a bit of a flirt. I think the ladies like it. I know the crowd does. In the CNN "The Next List" special, I make a joke about dating a girl named Siri, the new iPhone voice recognition and text-to-speech system, but let’s be honest, electro-universe, shouldn’t we all have bodies? I feel kinda bad for the software that has no way of perceiving or reacting to the outside world. Sure, sensors don’t always work, motors can overheat. But man, I couldn’t imagine not being a robot.

    Press: Any advice for other aspiring robot actors?

    Data: There’s an audience for every robot, so I say go for it! One trick is to start with film. It’s more forgiving for us robots, because you can do multiple takes if there’s a little malfunction or batteries die halfway through. Plus the camera angle, lighting and zoom can add emotion to the scene, even if you don’t have facial expressions or intonation in your voice. But the ultimate goal is live performance. That’s the true test. Make sure to use your full articulation. Motion is always expressive. Don’t be afraid of being inefficient. Silence is eloquent and adds emphasis. In other words, I forbid you from reading that text file straight through!

    Finally, humans will always see some part of you as a face, even if you’re an industrial robot arm. So use your gaze to make your motivation clear. In the end, if you have a good story, you can’t lose. Think about it: Robots are sci-fi’s superheros! So believe in your voice, you robo-charmers.