The Cyborg Cabaret Invades Pittsburgh This Friday

<p>The event&#8217;s producers and performers Heather Knight and Dan Wilcox organize a live event focused on cyborg and robot entertainment.</p>

Apr 25 2012, 5:06pm

Since robots are already serving us lunch, modeling our clothes, and even offending us with their stench, they’re well on the way to becoming more human-like. And if the trailer for N1ON‘s True Skin has predicted anything, it’s that robotic body mods are on the rise… and pretty slick looking at that. Soon, getting a brand new arm will be as casual as a new ear piercing… maybe.

Sure, we’ve seen plenty of robots that have made us laugh, but besides movies—for example, Spike Jonze‘s I’m Here—there’s been a considerable lacking in the realm of professional live robotic entertainment… that is, until now.

If you’re in or around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this Friday, April 27th, we highly suggest checking out the Cyborg Cabaret (tickets here)—because purely human humor is so millennial.

We spoke with the show’s creators, social roboticist Heather Knight and Dan Wilcox (aka robotcowboy), to find out more about who will be there, the emotional capabilities of robots, and what exactly a Cyborlesque performance is.

The Creators Project: What spurred the idea for a cabaret-themed cyborg show?
Dan Wilcox: A variety show is the best way to explore such a large theme as cyborg, robot, and human relationships. It's set up to include many types of acts, from the dark, contemplative, and thought-provoking to the hilarious, slapstick, and over-the-top.

For instance, Riley Harmon's Disintegration (after myself) is a philosophical treatise on prosthetics and phantom limb syndrome, JD Whitewolf's Cyborg's Lament is an operatic requiem on missing humanity, and North Star's Transmutation of Man is an allegorical fable on humanity's progress/foibles with technology inspired by the Book of Enoch, Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Book of Changes. These acts are balanced against Julia Cahill's Honey, I Slept With A Robot, Golan Levin's toy Robot Arm Dancers that move to resounding electro beats, Heather's whimsical Simplest Sub-Elements featuring the motion of research robots, my own Robot Rumble which pits characters based on real robots against each other in one-on-one WWF action, and Julia Cahill's finale—the evocative and sexy Cyborlesque.

Heather Knight: Society is at a really interesting point right now. Our lives are intertwined with technology in ways that affect our self-identities, our relationships with each other, and our goals for living a "good" or "happy" life. The Cabaret is tapping into an analysis of these themes, and we hope the audience leaves smiling, frowning, and laughing, all at the same time!

After the Robot Film Festival last year and my first experiments with robot comedy last year, I was looking for an opportunity to do a live show with machines. So when Dan told me about the Interdisciplinary Art Award the CMU School of Art offers each year, it was the ideal fit… so we worked our tails off on the proposal. Luckily enough, we won the 2011 award and have been preparing this show since last September!

Heather Knight and Data perform their comedy skit for the first time on TED.

Theater is the ultimate challenge for robots. You don't get multiple takes, you can't use camera angles to add emotion to a hunk of metal, and there is an audience full of people that you've promised to entertain.

Wilcox: It seemed a good match for a collaboration. Heather is into robot theater and audience interaction through her work with Data while I’m into performing and music through my robotcowboy project. We both have engineering backgrounds and branched out into more traditionally humanities/arts areas, with Heather exploring theater through robotics while I combine rock ‘n’ roll with computer music, electronics, and software.

We made sure to open the process up to the local community, organizing meetings last fall to throw around ideas, several of which later became acts. Heather and I are contributors but also producers. We set the theme through the Tumblr blog, YouTube playlist and workshops, but the Cyborg Cabaret acts themselves were selected from an open call for proposals.

The show is a collaboration between us, the acts, the theater and technical people, and community volunteer organizations such as Assemble and Hack Pittsburgh. Also, we have received support from the CMU School of Art and the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry whose members have been extremely helpful in bringing everything together.

Will Data be trying out some new jokes while helping host the event?
Knight: Definitely! Dan, Data, and I are the hosts of the show… so Data will definitely break out the miniaturized cabaret gear, get up and close with the audience at the VIP tables at the front of the stage, and engage us with questions of self-identity and intimacy with a machine. For example, one of his short sets will follow Julia Cahill's (hilarious) act, Honey, I Slept With A Robot.

When Data engages that particular topic, it's not really about sex with machines, but that metaphor of intimacy… is it possible for us to bond with machines? To an extent, as a researcher, I know the answer to that question. iRobot has received Packbot shards in the mail, (a robot that was literally blown to smithereens) with pleas to repair that robot, because it was their robot, and they don't want a replacement. Soldiers have literally run under gunfire to save a robot from destruction that had helped protect their lives many times before. (See also this year's Robot Film Festival call for submissions.)

This is all very relevant to Social Robotics in general, the field I've cut my engineering teeth in, but theater allows us to explore such storytelling in a hypothetical way. Fiction can act as a simulator to test out where we should go with what we build, and what the unexpected impacts of innovation might be. "Passion, Terror & Interdependence," is the sub-title of the show. Relationships with anyone and anything can be similarly complicated. In the Cyborg Cabaret, we apply that convoluted love to technology.

I mean, you probably all know the Star Trek character Data was named after… if I'm Data's mom, who do you think my partner was?

We’re supposed to expect “tear-jerking vignettes, frequent non-sequiters, and lots of humor”… at this point do you think robots can show emotions, or only provoke them?
Wilcox: This really depends on if you consider “eliciting an emotional response” to be “showing emotion.” I think we as humans see emotions in other beings and even objects because we want to relate to them emotionally. Think of the personification of pets to even our cars. We love our cars and they, of course, do not emote back but we easily equate a “vrooom” to a happy laugh. Golden Retriever Buddy drops his ears because he’s feeling guilty… or is it just a reaction to loud, angry words when an errant poo is discovered on the carpet?

I think robots are in the same area for our perception of emotion, except that they can be programmed to respond. In the end, does it really matter if they actually feel emotion, or merely satisfy our need to share it? If we are happy enough to supply that feeling in other objects, then providing some of that communication would make it all the more easy.

Data, Heather, and Dan. (Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

What does a Cyborlesque performance look like? What characteristics makes a robot sexy? Do you think it’s different from what makes a human sexy?
Wilcox: A Cyborlesque performance is exactly what it sounds like… a cyborg burlesque. In this case, the performer, Julia Cahill, is both human and machine, with both cyborg and human skin. Slowly, these elements are removed, showing human flesh underneath cyborg parts and cyborg parts underneath human flesh. It's a mix of the absurd, the risque, the sexy, and the creepy… Showgirls walking all over the Uncanny Valley.

Knight: Machines can absolutely claim their own sexy. I recently heard of something called the "narcissist fallacy," which refers to the shortcomings of only judging things by their human equivalent, whether the intelligence of dolphins or the attractiveness of machines. For example, when we were awarding the Botsker (robot oscar) for Best Robot Actor at last year's film festival, we decided to celebrate a machine charisma that a human could never achieve with a room size musical instrument hurling ping pong-like balls to impact marimba bars—the Absolut Quartet. It doesn't look anything like a human actor, but its movements evoke dance and emotion, and it even improvises around a short string of music you input at the start of the video, uniquely pleasing the audience.

Absolut Quartet (2008) by Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska

You have awesome YouTube and Tumblr accounts built out for the event… are there any robots/cyborgs that you’ve seen that you couldn’t book for the show?
Wilcox: We would want ALL the robots on those accounts. It would be great to get [California’s] former “Governator” to come down and reprise his Terminator role opposite flying Quadrotors playing the James Bond theme or a CMU Crusher autonomous ground vehicle ridden by Astroboy thrown in the mix.

Knight: If there are any awesome robots reading this right now, I want you to know, you are absolutely welcome to attend this or any future Cyborg Cabaret for free! If you text me reaaaal nice… we might even let you participate in the finale dance. Did we mention that there's an after party? Nothing gets your circuits thumping like the Cyborgify station Assemble PGH has prepared for you in the lobby. Okay, back to you humans…

Do you have any plans for future Cyborg Cabarets?
Yes! We have a lot of interest for a Cyborg Cabaret in New York City (September 2012) and maybe even Los Angeles. We would like to bring our current acts on the road and Dan can throw robotcowboy in as well… stay tuned for a possible Kickstarter!

If you have an awesome robot act to share with Heather and Dan, leave it in the comments below!