Can Computers Be Funny?

It’s a question that artificial intelligence researchers are asking themselves with greater urgency.

If one of the goals of AI is to allow humans to converse with computers in a way that is as natural, intuitive, and frictionless as conversing with people, then AI systems need to master irony, sarcasm, ambiguity, humor, and puns—aspects of conversation that humans handle with ease but that still baffle even the most sophisticated AI.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, James Geary looks at recent developments in trying to teach computers to be funny. Geary notes that puns point to the essence of all true wit: the ability to hold two different ideas about the same thing at the same time.

He goes on to state that the human brain is really good at this, thanks largely to what neuroscientists call the “default network,” which kicks in during mental states such as daydreaming and free association. At these moments, our attention is diffuse, and the brain gleans information from a broad array of sources. True wit will most likely be found by modeling the default network. In contrast, the brain’s “executive network” specializes in specific goal-directed tasks, like reasoning, planning and problem-solving. Current AI systems perform best when modeling the executive network.

Geary concludes by claiming that endowing AI systems with the element of surprise is perhaps the ultimate technical challenge.

I’ll share some of the jokes from the article that were generated by computers, and I’ll let you be the judge as to how funny you think the jokes are.

  • “What kind of tree can you wear? A fir coat.”
  • Here’s a one-liner overlaid across a picture of a bespectacled, bow-tied feline in front of a blackboard: “Come stay at Chemistry Cat Inn: Great day rates and even better nitrates.”
  • “Your mate Johnny is a hard up deer-keeper. He really needs doe!”

And here’s a couple of jokes that were not generated by a computer program:

  • A skeleton walks into a bar and says, “I’ll have a beer and a mop, please.”
  • “What do you get when you cut a comedian in two?” “A half-wit.”

I think I’d have to say that the last couple of jokes are the cream of the crop, which shows that us simple humans are still better than computers in at least one thing.

But I am worried about the day when computers spend their time making fun of us with “dumb human” jokes. Once that happens we’re doomed.

Who’ll be laughing then?

*image from KS2 teacher resources

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