Japanese comedian robot is the other kind of funny

Can humour be broken down into a series of programmable commands? The Kobian robot helps researchers find out.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
2 min read

Waseda University

Humour is a subjective beast -- what's funny to one will fall flat with another, and, unless you know a person well, it can be hard to predict which side of the line a joke is going to fall. Comedy is a rough gig -- could it be codified, broken down into components and written into a program to be delivered by a robot?

That's what researchers at Waseda University, Japan, intended to find out, using the Kobian Emotion Expression Biped Humanoid Robot, unveiled in 2009. The team, led by Professor Atsuo Takanishi, broke down comedy into three methods -- funny behaviour (such as exaggeration, dirty jokes, parody, sympathetic stories and laughter), funny context (a running gag or doing something unexpected) and funny character (self-flattery, self-deprecation and imitation).

Then, they wrote some sketches to be performed by Kobian -- and it worked, to varying degrees.

Some volunteers were invited to watch Kobian perform, while being monitored using EMG sensors, accelerometers and video cameras to detect smiles and laughter. Imitation of a human comedian familiar to the Japanese audience was measured to be the funniest, with some 80 per cent of the audience either laughing or smiling, while transformation and vitriol were the least funny, only eliciting a response from 10 per cent.

The routine was also found to have an improving effect on the volunteers' moods. Before and after viewing the show, they were asked to take a profile of mood states test, which showed slightly decreased levels of stress, depression, anger, fatigue, activity and confusion after watching Kobian perform.

The team is now planning on writing more complex routines for Kobian and testing them on larger audiences. It is possible, however, that a Japanese audience's reaction to a robot comedian will be a lot more favourable than a western one: the cultural difference in how we perceive robots has been well documented.

Professor Takanishi and his team presented their paper, "Bipedal Humanoid Robot That Makes Humans Laugh With Use of the Method of Comedy and Affects Their Psychological State Actively", at the 2014 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.