Written by Svenn Richard Mathisen

A robot led one Canadian PhD student to a life of improv comedy and AI research.

Kory Mathewson did not set out to do improv on stage with a robot when he began his PhD in computing science. 

But that is just what he did, at this year's Edmonton Fringe Fest, where he had improv shows. First, he was at TEDxRFT, an improv similar to the popular TED Talks videos, and then at Human Machine, an AI improv show. 

In an interview with Canada's Folio, he said, "The Human Machine AI improv show is part of my PhD work. I’m studying how humans and machine-learning systems interact, and so this show is a little bit of a play on the work that I’ve been doing.

He added, "I’ve been building dialogue systems, and this show explores how humans and these dialogue systems — like Siri, Alexa or Google Home — play into our lives, and the funny things they say."

A biomedical engineer by training, Mathewson was drawn to machine learning because he enjoyed "reinforcement learning."

He explained, "I went into computing science exploring reinforcement learning, which is an awesome field of study, and there’s world leaders at the U of A, like Rich Sutton and Patrick Pilarski, and so I was looking to interact with them."

As he delved deeper into his studies, he wanted to combine dialogue systems with reinforcement learning. 

He said, "I was doing improv the whole time while I was doing my PhD, and Patrick [Pilarski] had this idea like, let’s call this a stretch goal. If you do all your thesis work, then we can talk about having a human-robot improv show. I’ve done my best to finish as much as I can, and this show is sort of a culmination of a lot of that work."

And he did. 

Mathewson loves the combination of science and comedy.

He said, "It makes me a more engaging presenter, a better teacher. It allows me to ask more interesting, creative questions. Sometimes it’s not the purely analytical work of programming this thing that needs to be done, but sit down and come up with a wild, outlandish, creative idea, and then all of a sudden you have humans and machines doing improv together on stage."

Learn more about robotics.  

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