Robots don’t just work in factories, says Heather Knight, so we shouldn’t just limit machines to automation. There are ways that we could work with machines to do tasks that neither could do alone.

People naturally ascribe personalities to machines, from cars to soldiers who work closely with bomb-disposal robots. In some ways this bond between humans and machines opens up new applications, you can create new things with machines that have these social capabilities.

One of the things Knight has been doing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute is to put a robot on stage – as a stand-up comedian. She works with human performers beforehand to test scenarios that the audience would respond to, and in turn the robot would learn from. The crowd seemed to like it.

That’s only the beginning. There will be applications that Knight can’t predict when we come up with more robots with more social capabilities. Initially we will think about efficiency – people originally thought the telephone would only be used by businesses to communicate, but they are mostly used for social interaction now. So Knight hopes that we will have robots that are friends and companions. In fact, she hopes to have a robot wingman that could ease social interactions at parties. Or do her talks at conferences – after all robots won’t get stage fright.

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