Robots with Care & Charisma

What’s your idea of the perfect robot? Probably one that can crack a few one-liners, while scanning your personal surroundings for any imminent danger (or building code violations), while also being a good influence on you, like, ‘Bro, I think it’s time for a mini workout sesh’ or ‘Here, have some fruit instead of that slice and pint you’ve been dreaming about crying into later.’ Probably all that and more, right? 

Lucky for you and me, that’s exactly what’s in store for us in the world of robotics, thanks in part to assistant professor Heather Knight and the CHARISMA lab at Oregon State University, where she and a team of students are developing robots that can not only interact with people effectively and efficiently, but add value to the workplace and other social spaces where ‘bots and humans can (and likely will) coexist.

“Oregon State is kind of special in that we have 11 full-time robotics professors,” says Knight. “There are also some other people affiliated with us.” Each professor has an individual research group like Knight’s, and overall the department has more than 60 students. 

“That’s a lot of people in the building that are trying to push for what is possible in the general frontier of robotics,” she says.

I Mean… Dam*
Raised in the Boston ‘burbs, Knight earned her PhD from Carnegie Mellon before working at the NASA Jet Propulsion lab and Synn Labs, and studying at MIT and Stanford University. She currently leads an annual Robot Film Festival, as well as the robot theater company MarilynMonrobot, starring robot comedy performances. 

She’s bringing her robot film fest to the streets of Corvallis this Tuesday, as part of the Da Vinci Days’ STEAM lecture series, where Knight will present a free 50-minute selection of short films from prior robot fests, at the downtown Marriott Courtyard, on 1st Street, at 6 p.m.

Knight’s been featured in articles by The New York Post and CNN, and was named one of 50 sexy scientists by Business Insider in 2013. In person she is modest and somehow calm, as she expresses a boisterous amount of passion for her work. An avid reader and researcher (even when off the job), Knight speaks rapidly and enthusiastically; It’s a wonder her brain can sustain such depths of knowledge. 

What She Does
“I look at the future of where robots and people share the same environment,” says Knight, “and it’s actually not just in the future. It’s also happening right now.”

Knight examples a company she works with, Clearpath Robotics, and their mobile robot, OTTO, employed side by side with factory workers, helping to make tens of thousands of brochures delivered across America each day.

Beyond functionality, Knight argues that “if you give [a robot] social skills, and if you add some extra value which is what I call the charisma, not only will it get the job done, but people will enjoy having it around.”

“So basically what I’m saying is that my lab is about creating robots that can go to happy hour with you,” Knight chimes.

In all seriousness, she continues, “Human behavior is not just about utility and functionality. That’s not what makes us happy. So how do we make machines that serve the full span of human needs?”

Developing Robot Awareness
Knight and her research team take inspiration from interpersonal interactions between people. 

As robots move away from factories and enter more shared public spaces, roboticists have found that they’re constantly failing, from a lack of effective programming that would allow them to communicate through borrowed human behavior.

“Like when you visit another country and rules of traffic differ,” Knight examples, “We can figure that out fairly quickly, so we need to program a robot to do that too.”

“Charisma is about social intelligence,” she continues. “A socially capable person can start conversations at a party or can walk away when it’s not the right time to jump into the conversation. A charismatic person can also leave an interaction in a way that doesn’t upset people.”

Some robots are learning autonomously how to improve their interactions. “There are processes where it’s just a human giving examples, and others where robots inquire over what they need to correct,” says Knight.

Just like humans, robots have to know when their presence is wanted and/or necessary—and which functions or gestures are appropriate in any given moment. Knight references an ethnographic survey in Pittsburgh over eight years ago, when two TUG model robots, programmed to provide fresh linens and medical samples, were placed on a maternity and surgery ward of the same hospital. The maternity ward responded kindly to the bot, while the surgery floor regarded it largely as a nuisance—perhaps due to the high-stress nature of a surgery ward when compared to the more relaxed and happy atmosphere on a maternity floor.

Over the quarter-century that the field of robotics has existed, researchers have identified proxemics as one of the most important aspects of development. 

“Turns out when you’re in a different emotional space, your bubble changes shapes,” says Knight. She elaborates using the example of our personal bubbles’ shrinking when we get scared by something blindly approaching us from behind. She imagines these features, once programmed, could be useful for future search and rescue bots.

“I think in the future we are going to see more data-driven approaches to figuring out what these kinds of [socio-robotic] rules are,” says Knight, “in the same way that the robot on the maternity floor needed to be a little bit different than the robot in the surgery ward.”

What’s Happening Now
One of CHARISMA’s current lab projects is called Resolution Bot—a robot that essentially functions as a level-headed health coach, by routinely reminding people of their personal health and fitness goals. 

Resolution Bot is programmed to give its human companions three to six gentle nudges throughout the day, encouraging them to take breaks from their work for, say, a small stroll or healthy snack. The robot will eventually be able to offer a literal tray of healthy snack options and water.

Programmed with eye-like features and a swiveling neck, Resolution Bot typically breaks the ice when approaching people by stating a joke—followed by a script related to the person’s emotional, physical, and nutritional health goals. 

Robots with humanoid features like Resolution Bot are more likely to influence our health when compared with other devices or gadgetry, such as a smartphone app that tracks your diet and exercise. Thanks to our brains, “we’re more likely to follow our plan if there’s this thing with eyes,” says Knight. 

Resolution Bot has text-to-speech capability and is control-operated. Data is generated from controller logs of people’s reactions to the bot and what they suggest, to determine what’s working or what people like best.

“At any point in an interaction, [Resolution Bot] gets instant feedback, so if it comes up to somebody and they’re having an awful day… they can instantly send it away, and whoever’s driving it will get that message and call off the whole thing,” says Knight.

Pilot studies with the Resolution Bot have confirmed its ability to inspire people in maintaining healthy habits, and the CHARISMA lab is looking at the long-term autonomy aspect of having a robot in a social setting over a sustained period of time.

Charisma & the Art of Performance
Referencing comedy routines put on by robots from her Marilyn Monroebot theater company, Knight emphasizes why studying human response is so important in developing effective and valuable robots.

In her previous work, Knight collaborated with performers to help machines work better alongside people. “Performers generally have really good ideas on how to do that, in charismatic ways,” she says. “They are the people in human society that can change who they are from one day to the next.”

Effective programming comes down to things like posture. “There are a lot of social signifiers in posture,” Knight explains. She references human tendencies like talking from the heart versus from the head, scanning a room when entering, or open versus closed posture—all of which affect positive, negative, and neutral emotions and reactions in others.

It could even come down to how a robot approaches a person. The CHARISMA lab is also working on a control-operated ChairBot that can approach people playfully, or otherwise. The bot’s perceived demeanor is all in its motions-—whether it’s doing laps around you or tempting you by moving back and forth. Knight even mused that the chair could come off as grumpy.

My question was, what if someone’s not in the mood for grumpy chair?

“You’re highlighting one of the most common failures [in robots],” says Knight, “which is annoying people, and not knowing when to go away.”

It’s her job to minimize this response and find out which behaviors are appropriate for which environment.

The Responsibility Factor
When it comes to human-robot interactions, Knight says becoming emotionally attached is not just likely; it’s a given. 

“It’s impossible for people not to bond with machines,” she says.

When Knight thinks about her robot companions over the years, she thinks of them “more as the way a novelist would feel about the characters in his or her book.”

To those that criticize the drive to personalize robots, Knight reasons, “It’s not about the robot, it’s about us.” 

She emphasizes the value in enhanced interactions with robots that could lead to more overall human success and happiness. The key is responsible engineering and implementation.

“I think it’s irresponsible to be a pure optimist about technology, because it’s always going to be how it’s integrated and used,” says Knight.

“Robots, like any other technology, are part of this socio-technological economic infrastructure, and they will have different effects, and probably do already, in terms of automation and jobs,” she continues.

Knight hopes that robots can one day replace some of the screens in our lives, and help move us away from cubicle culture. In her perfect world, full of robots, there would be more “technology that brings us together, rather than splits us apart.”

Good thing we have roboticists like her on the front lines of robot development.

Heather Knight will host a free 50-minute montage from past Robot Film Festivals as part of the Da Vinci Days STEAM lecture series, this Tuesday, May 15, starting at 6 p.m., at the Marriot Courtyard, 400 SW 1st Street, Corvallis. For more info, visit

By Stevie Beisswanger