"A doctor says to his patient, 'I have bad news and worse news,'" says Data, a 22.5-inch-tall robot comedian.

"'The bad news is, you only have 24 hours to live.' 'That's terrible,' says the patient. 'How can the news possibly be worse?'" Engineer Heather Knight holds up the mic as Data says: "'I've been trying to reach you since yesterday.'"

Though the audience may not realize it, their chuckles are improving Data's social skills. Knight has programmed Data to respond to laughter, silence, and applause: If the jokes go over, he delivers more in the same vein; if they bomb, he changes course. Just like a human, "he has to interpret the world," Knight says, "and react to it."

Data's act is just one way in which Knight's engineering outfit, Marilyn Monrobot, is helping humans and robots understand each other: She also hosts a Robot Film Festival, which screens films that explore human–machine relations. "A robot patrolling a parking garage should have a different attitude than one that distributes juice boxes at a preschool," Knight says. "My job is to give robots the charisma that makes us want to bond with them."

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