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Heather Knight: Smart is the New Sexy

on Tue, 04/23/2013 - 00:00

Heather Knight Wired UK Magazine
When the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory premiered in 2007, an early tagline for the show declared “Smart is the New Sexy” as way to introduce the basic premise of the series, which features two socially inept male scientists and the attractive female waitress living next door. A few years later, meanwhile, an episode of the BBC drama Sherlock united the famed Baker Street detective with blackmailing dominatrix Irene Adler. After Holmes revealed the events of a suspected murder—which was in actuality an accidental death—despite only briefly viewing the “crime” scene via a webcam, Adler is not only impressed by his deductions but likewise asserts, “Brainy is definitely the new sexy.”

In February 2013, Business Insider transformed those two fictional statements into a factual observation with its “Sexiest Scientists Alive!” feature on the smartest scientists in the real world. “It’s hard to make microbes, telescopes, and math calculations appear sexy, but we found fifty scientists who pull it off fabulously,” the online magazine declared. “Some of the people who made our list are rising stars. Others are already well-established in their field. All of them are making a difference (or on their way to) by improving our lives through research and new discoveries.”

The list itself was an amalgamation of both males and females, and encompassed a range of academic fields from biology to chemistry, technology to marine ecology. Of particular note was Heather Knight, a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was ranked as the fourth “sexiest scientist” in the world.

“I had to laugh a little when I heard about this,” Knight told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in regards to her selection. “But I think that most human beings are multidimensional, and that there shouldn’t be a stereotype of scientists looking a certain way. We can be whoever we want to be. There is no reason we have to make a choice between science and beauty. I was shy about being in a technical field, and dressing however I wanted when I first got to MIT, but it gets easier as I get older.”

As for the “brainy” part of Heather Knight, she indeed has an impressive resume. After acquiring both a bachelor and master’s degree in electrical and mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Knight was accepted into the doctorate program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. In addition to working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Syyn Labs in Los Angeles, meanwhile, she is also a self-proclaimed “social roboticist” and founder of Marilyn Monrobots Labs in New York City.

“Marilyn Monrobot is a Robot Theater Company, founded to investigate the intersection of robotics and entertainment, and those two metaphors are heavily embedded in the name,” Knight explained to The Creators Project in July 2011. “So far, we’re largely a creative company, working on robot comedy performances, creating a collaboration space between technologists and artists and throwing in the occasional sensor-based interactive installation and Rube Goldberg Machine.”

In addition to Marilyn Monrobot, Heather Knight has also created a standup comedy routine revolving around herself and the Mini-Me sized robot Data. Knight serves as the Abbott to Data’s Costello, keeping a straight face as her counterpart recites such quips as “I would say it’s a pleasure to be here, but I am a robot and don’t know emotion.” Together, Heather Knight and Data have performed throughout both the United States and Europe, including the 2010 TEDWomen Conference and the 2011 Wired Festival in England.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Knight consulted with acting teachers and professional standup comedians in order to realistically program Data for his role, and likewise collaborated with drama students at CMU for his dialogue. The robot is also outfitted with microphones in order to “hear” the reaction to his performance, while the audience is given red and green cards to hold up as a further means of offering feedback. If Data sees too many red cards, for instance, he switches the routine and moves on to other material—just like a real life comedian.

It is the human aspects of robotics, meanwhile, that most intrigues Heather Knight. “Working with robots has helped reveal to me the complexity of being human,” she told The Creators Project. “I also believe that the stage—with its constrained environment, the ability to embed sensors in the space, a playfulness that can draw audiences and its repeatability—is a great space to innovate and improve robot expression and interactivity. It ain’t easy to charm an audience, as my robot Data will tell you, but he’s got his cybernetic heart set on becoming a robot celebrity and I pity the fool that gets in the way of a young robot’s dreams.”

Knight was able to further expand upon her personal philosophy in a short essay published in the April 2013 edition of Wired UK, and even appeared on the cover of the magazine with Data. “Humans are social creatures,” she writes. “As soon as we encounter a machine capable of motion, sensing and some modicum of volition, we place that machine into the social hierarchy of human relations. I have mourned the loss of a stolen laptop as if it were a loved one, and I bought my Nao robot Data, rather than return it to Aldebaran Robotics, the company I was working for at the time, because I had bonded with it in the way I might with a puppy.”

That does not mean that robots are more important than people, however, just that they can add insights into what it means to be human. “We do not need robots that are replacement lovers or friends,” she continues. “Humans provide far more complexity. But robots make fantastic wingmen—they can break the ice at a party, they can make you look good in front of people. As they learn more about humanity, and with the right kind of application designers, they will make our best features shine.”

While being named one of the “Sexiest Scientists Alive” and appearing on the cover of a prominent magazine might be considered a successful year for most people, Heather Knight was also a 2013 contestant on the SyFy Channel’s Robot Combat League, a reality show competition that took the popular concept of miniaturized robots outfitted with cutting-saws and torque-reaction hammers fighting to the “death” to a whole new level.

Instead of souped-up remote control vehicles that range from 75 grams to 340 pounds in weight, for instance, the robots of SyFy were eight-feet tall, stood on two legs, tipped the scales at over 1,000 pounds and contained 2,000 PSI of punching power. It required two humans to operate the behemoths—a robo-tech who controlled the legs and a robo-jockey in charge of the arms and torsos. Although the robots themselves were designed by animatronics engineer Mark Setrakian, Heather Knight was one of two robot-techs that had direct ties to Carnegie Mellon University.

“When I actually saw the robot, it was quite exciting,” fellow contestant Chris Hardouin—who earned his master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from CMU in 2001—told the New Orleans Times-Picayune at the time. “In the ring, when you see my reaction when they first bring out our robot, that is complete, genuine astonishment. We did not expect them to be that big. We did not expect them to be eight-feet tall, 1,000-pound, hydraulic-driven killing machines. It was very daunting to be in the ring with them.”

Knight was likewise impressed with the robotic creations. “The robots are the real stars of the show,” she explained on the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute website. “The actual mechanical engineering is really quite clever.”

And apparently dangerous as well. “When the robot was activated—and by activated, I mean the pressure from the hydraulics was on—we couldn’t even be within three feet of the robot because we could accidently be killed,” Chris Hardouin added. “I was talking to my wife and said, ‘You better get more life insurance on me. This could be lethal.’”

Although neither Chris Hardouin nor Heather Knight emerged victorious during the nine-episode tournament, it was apparently an enjoyable and entertaining experience for the two Pittsburgh-educated robo-techs nonetheless. “It was a really cool competition,” Knight said afterwards. “I hope we continue seeing awesome robots on screen and on stage.”

If Heather Knight has anything to say about it, odds are that we definitely will.

Anthony Letizia

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