Artificial Intelligence Can Now Craft Original Jokes—And That’s No Laughing Matter

Don’t you hate it,” says Jon the Robot, gesturing with tiny articulated arms at an expectant crowd, “when you’re trying to solve inverse kinematics equations to pick up a cup and then you get ‘Error 453, no solution found’?” The crowd laughs. “Don’t you hate that?”

Jon, a joke-making experiment, is the creation of Naomi Fitter, an assistant professor at Oregon State University’s School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. When a handler, who must also hold mic, presses a button on the tiny android, it performs. It then repeats the jokes as a veteran comedian in a Vegas strip casino.
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But the robot’s act is more human than it might first appear. Jon is learning how to respond to its audience—it can now vary the timing of its delivery based on the length of the audience’s laughter, and append different responses to jokes based on the level of noise in the room. It can deliver one line if a joke gets a roar of laughter (“Please tell the booking agents how funny that joke was”) and another if there are crickets (“Sorry about that. It seems I was caught up in a loop. Please tell the booking agents that you like me … that you like me … that you like me”).

A subset of AI researchers is eying the possibility of creating an AI that recognizes our laughter and can create its own funny content. Artificial intelligence has the ability to read maps and diagnose tumors faster than humans, as well as play games.

However, for the time being, linguistic humor remains a people thing. Jon can work blue, with a whole bit on robot dating that involves cryptic texts, encrypted text, and the eggplant emoji—but only because a human has written and programmed a set list for it. Finding a way to teach machines to be funny on their own would be a major breakthrough—one that could fundamentally reshape the way we relate to the devices around us. To understand a person’s humor is to know what they like, how they think and how they see the world. An AI who understands this can do much more than make jokes.

First, we need to understand the basic principles of humor. Machines learn by taking vast amounts of data and feeding it through algorithms—in other words, formulas or detailed sets of instructions—in search of patterns or unique features. It works well when it comes down to, for example, distinguishing between photos of dogs from photos of cars. However, it can also destroy jokes by deconstructing them in an extremely painful operation. “Explanations are to jokes what autopsies are to bodies: if the subject isn’t already dead, it soon will be,” wrote University College Dublin associate professor Tony Veale in his recent bookYour Will is Mine: Building AIs with Humor.

The human brain has a wealth of cultural references and linguistic details that can be used to tell jokes. AI is limited to what humans have given it. Therefore, if an AI wants to make people laugh, they must be specific about the type of humor that we would like to impart.

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One theory of humor is that the degree to which we find something funny matches the degree to which a joke’s punch line deviates from the listener’s unconscious expectation. Thomas Winters (a doctoral student in artificial Intelligence at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) uses this example to illustrate his point: Two fish are inside a tank. Says one to the other: “You man the guns, I’ll drive.”

“In the beginning, you see this aquarium, this water tank. But then you hear ‘You man the guns, I’ll drive,’ and you’re like, Well, aquariums generally don’t have weaponry or wheels or drivability,” Winters says, in a heroic effort to parse the mechanics of a fish joke. “This mental jump from one interpretation to another one is something that most jokes or things we find funny have.”

Courtesy Naomi FitterIn October 2019, Jon the Robot, and Naomi Fitter will perform live on stage at the Majestic Theater, Corvallis (Ore.).

AI can be extremely good at following a specific formula. A lot of comedy writers are successful in following formulas.

Joe Toplyn started his journey into comedy when he met a friend in The Bahamas. Harvard Lampoon tipped him off that a writing job was opening up at David Letterman’s late-night show. He sent in some jokes—a bit about a periscope–enabled refrigerator made it onto the air—and landed the job. The rest of his life was spent writing comedy and talk show scripts, earning four Emmy Awards and heading-writer credits. David Letterman’s Late ShowAnd Jay Leno’s Tonight Show

In 2014 Toplyn published Late-Night TV Comedy Writing: Monologue Jokes and Desk Pieces. Sketches, Desk Pieces. Parodies. Audience Pieces. Remotes. Other short-form Comedy.This book is the result of his years of studying monologues over decades and reengineering some of the most popular jokes.

Toplyn isn’t precious about comedy writing: it’s a job, one that a person can learn to do well if given the right inputs. The jokes that got the biggest laughs for Leno and Letterman follow identifiable formulas populated with “handles”—people, places, things and other references—each with a variety of related associations that can be combined to form a punch line. These jokes could be made by a computer if there was enough data and sufficient time.

Earlier this year, at the International Conference on Computational Creativity, Toplyn presented a research paper outlining Witscript, a joke–generation system trained on a data set of TV–monologue jokes that detects keywords in entered text and creates a relevant punch line. Unlike other forms of robot comedy, the system—which Toplyn has patented—can generate contextually relevant jokes on the spot in response to a user’s text. A chatbot or voice assistant enabled with the software can respond with humor to users’ queries (when appropriate) without derailing the interaction.

Toplyn views Witscript in the same way he saw late-night television for many decades: Making people laugh and making them feel less lonely.

“That’s basically the goal,” Toplyn says. “It’s to make chatbots more humanlike, so people will be less lonely.”

Professionals don’t love the notion that computers can do their job reliably. The same goes for comedy writers. When Winters posted a joke—writing software prototype to a Reddit forum for stand-up comics, he got some colorfully worded responses insisting that no machine could replicate the nuance of human comedy.

Toplyn says critics forget how communication is based on simple formulas. “Rodney Dangerfield: ‘I get no respect.’ That’s a formula. Or Jeff Foxworthy: ‘You may be a redneck if.’ There are plenty of formulas in comedy, and some of them are right on the surface,” Toplyn says.

People don’t always laugh at Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy or the banter on a late-night talkshow. One other camp claims that artificial intelligence should be utilized in comedy and the arts as a kind of infinite idea generator, free from human biases and blinders. This can create new themes and associations human performers and writers could not come up with.

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Piotr mirowski, who was working at Bing as a search engine, noticed similarities between the work he did and his hobby of improv. Search engineering is the art of teaching the computer to find the most relevant results for any given query. Mirowski states that in improv performers learn to listen to their intuitions and follow what makes them feel comfortable. It’s not always perfect, and the results sometimes have a hilarious absurdity, as anyone who has started typing a Google query with the predictive search feature on knows. Mirowski founded Improbotics, an international troupe of improvisers that uses an artificial intelligence to generate prompts and lines for the performers.

“I don’t think it’s really possible to build a true AI-based comedy that relies on understanding the emotions of another person or the context,” he says. “What we can do is to bring that into life ourselves.”

Improv comics often use cues that are shouted from the audience. An AI is able to draw on ideas from across the globe and throughout history. The goal isn’t to build a thing that will make the laughs for us, Mirowski says, but instead one that can help humans find new things to laugh about. It will be as powerful as any technology that users interact with, and with amazing results.

“I see what we’re doing as kind of like building the electric guitar. It’s not very clear how to play it or what it’s going to do, and it sounds really weird and distorted and there are enough acoustic guitars anyway,” says Kory Mathewson, Improbotics co-founder and cast member and a Montreal-based research scientist with DeepMind. “Then Jimi Hendrix gets an electric guitar, and it’s like, ‘Oh. That’s what this is about.’”

A tool that has the ability to entertain and influence can be exploited as well. Understanding someone’s sense of humor is a window into how they see the world, what their preferences are, maybe even where they are vulnerable. It’s not a power that people are entirely comfortable with computers having.

Researchers recruited two people to a 2019 study. They were either friends, lovers, or close family members. They gave participants a list of jokes and asked them to choose which ones their friend or partner would find funny, based on a limited sample of the person’s responses to other jokes. Computers were trained to predict the same thing using the same data. The buddy was then shown the list so they could see which jokes they enjoyed. The machines predicted people’s favorite jokes more accurately than their friends or partners did.

In a second experiment, the computers were more accurate than human beings at guessing which jokes participants liked. However, this experiment revealed that participants liked jokes more if they felt they were coming from a computer. They didn’t trust them. Studies have shown that humans trust AI more with humor than writing news articles or driving trucks. Jokes focus on a shared vision of the world and a willingness not to conform to the same rules. We know what it means when a friend sends something along and says, “I thought you’d find this funny.” What’s a robot getting at when it does the same thing? We all benefit if the robot’s humor wins them over.

There’s a common saying that robots should do the jobs that are too dirty, dangerous or dull for humans. We still desire comedy for ourselves.

Jon the Robot’s live performances have been restricted to pre-pandemic programs. The act is not at the point where it might threaten the livelihood of Netflix-special-level comedians—yet. Before powering down, Jon always signs off with the same line: “If you like me, please book me and help me take your jobs.”


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