Arshia Khan asked a group of older adults in Minnesota what they would like in a nursing home, and their answer surprised her. They wanted standup comedy, but not just any comedy: They wanted off-color jokes.
Dr. Khan, a professor of computer science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, programs robots to work in nursing homes.
On a March afternoon in her lab, surrounded by a dozen robots of different sizes and designs, Dr. Khan asked one to show off its stuff. The robot, a four-foot-tall white plastic figure named Pepper, with a tablet screen in its chest, blinked its eyes and wiggled its hips.
“So, which one of you requested the dirty jokes?” Pepper asked, in a computer voice.
There followed a risqué joke about the robot’s relationship with its charging plug, and another about an unhappy date with a Tesla (too conceited). After each, the robot giggled. “I went on a date with a Roomba last week,” the robot said, gesticulating with its arms. Pause. “It totally sucked.”
Later this year, pending approval from the university’s institutional review board, 16 of Dr. Khan’s robots will go to eight nursing homes around the state — though without the off-color jokes.
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