Could you banter with a robot? Photo: Still from "Bender's Big Score Trailer"/foxabulous's channel/YouTube
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Could a robot make you laugh?

Artificial intelligence researchers are trying to make machines tell jokes. It's not going very well.

Our brains are very complex, sure, but we’re not the transcendent beings we think we are, despite what that pinkish-beige thing encased in your skull would have you believe.

It’s hard to fathom how sentience is the result of a meshwork of nerve cells and chemicals. But the more we learn about our brains, compare them with other non-human brains and replicate them in artificial form, the less special we appear to be.

Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are testing the boundaries by seeing if the cognitive skill to provoke laugher and provide amusement can be placed into machines. Basically, they want to see if robots can be funny. Crazy? Sure. This is mostly because humour is dependent on multiple parameters, many of which are internal and subject to change – what might be funny today may not be funny tomorrow.

Linguistics and psychologists believe good jokes all share the same properties – they amuse us – so systematic analysis ought to reveal them, right? Well, erm, not quite.  

Computer scientist Dragomir Radev of the University of Michigan and friends at Yahoo Labs, Columbia University and The New Yorker have been studying cartoon captions to see if humour can be arithmetically expressed in computers. Radev and co’s study is published in arXiv.

The New Yorker’s famous cartoon caption contest has been running for more than a decade. Each week, editors publish a captionless cartoon and more than 5,000 readers submit a funny caption. The editors pick the top three and ask readers to choose the funniest.  

In the paper, the authors of the study take a computational approach to determine what differentiates the funniest captions from the rest. They use a number of standard linguistic techniques to rank all 300,000 captions. Criteria include the level of sentiment, whether the captions were referring to people, how clearly they refer to particular objects in the cartoon, and so on.

Radev and co then took the highest ranked captions and compared them to the gold standard: the captions New Yorker readers chose as the funniest. This was done by crowdfunding opinion using Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a place where companies perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do. 

Based on this approach, it’s easy to imagine a computer capable of churning out the best caption. But the researchers are a long way off from achieving this. A more ambitious goal would be to have the machine write the best caption for a cartoon – good luck achieving that.

I ask Radev how we might build funny robots, if ever. He replies: "Easy – leave a few of the screws loose". 

Perhaps it should come as a relief that making jokes is one more thing a human can do that a computer can’t. So maybe we are a little special after all, at least for now. 

Radev and co are making their database of captions accessible to other researchers. If you would like to build the first funny robot then you're welcome to it.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

Sam Pepper via YouTube
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The story of Sam Pepper: how a British YouTuber incurred the wrath of the internet

The Dapper Laughs of online pranks  has finally gone too far.

Last night, a Twitter user claiming to be "a voice" for hacker collective Anonymous sent out a series of angry tweets slamming a video featuring "violent abuse". The user wasn't referring to Isis, which is the subject of an ongoing campaign by the hacker group, but a young, turquoise-haired British man named Sam Pepper. 

Pepper is a YouTube star who came to fame after appearing in the 11th series of reality show Big Brother. He's known for his prank YouTube videos posted under the username "Sam", which have in the past involved such hilarious japes as wearing a prosthetic old man's face and climbing into bed with his own girlfriend. He now lives in LA, but is friends with other prominent British YouTubers, including, of course, Zoella. 

So on the face of it, it's a little surprising that @TheAnonMessage blasted out this tirade against the star last night as a series of tweets to his 170,000-odd followers:

We've been notified of a sick, disturbing video uploaded by @sampepper. Yet again, he uses violent abuse to garner subscribers.

This is something that we cannot stand for. This so-called prank should bring shame to the YouTube community for supporting this imbecile.

This video must be taken down. @SamPepper you have been warned. You have 24 hours or we will unleash fucking hell on you.

The video in question, "KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK | Ft. Sam & Colby", was published on 29 November but already has over two million views. In it, Pepper teams up with another Sam, half of the YouTube duo Sam & Colby, to pretend to, er, kill him, and terrify Colby in the process.

Sam and Colby drive into shot, then both get out of the car to check the oil. A figure wearing a black balaclava grabs Colby, put a bag over his head, tapes up his hands and dumps him in the boot of the car, all with Sam's help. The pair take him to a rooftop, where the bag is removed, and Pepper - the masked attacker - shoots Colby in the head with a fake gun. The visual references to Isis are hard to ignore:  

Photo: Sam Pepper via YouTube

What follows is a genuinely disturbing thirty seconds in which Colby screams and cries, eventually drowned out and replaced in the video's edit by tinkly piano music. Finally, Sam stands up and reveals he isn't dead. 

YouTubers responded angrily to the prank. Commenters called it "cruel" and seemed genuinely distressed by Colby's experience. The video's approval ratings, represented by thumbs up and thumbs down, are a good indication of audience reaction: 

So what happens if Pepper doesn't remove the video within 24 hours? Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous told me that "[@TheAnonMessage] has earned the wrath of Anonymous for acting irresponsibly" in the past (most notably, the user launched an attack on the wrong Ferguson police officer), and isn't part of the main Anonymous group. However, this doesn't mean the user couldn't attack Sam's channel or website. Either way, @TheAnonMessage has leapt on the coattails of a controversy that seems to have caught the imagination of large swathes of social media.

From Pepper's own point of view, though, it's easy to see why the whole furore is a little mystifying. His entire empire is founded on pushing boundaries of acceptability, and no one involved in this particular prank is angry - the video includes an epilogue where he chats to Sam and Colby, and Sam grins and exclaims "that was crazy!".

There's a parallel with the comedian Daniel O'Reilly (also known by his persona Dapper Laughs) here: both are young male entertainers who built an online audience through pushing the envelope with humour and pranks, and are then a bit shocked when they cross an invisible line and are lambasted for behaviour not dissimilar to the actions that earned them followers in the first place. 

Pepper, like Dapper, has been accused of misogyny, and even sexual harassment in his videos - he removed one, "Fake Hand Pinch Prank", which involved grabbing women in public using a fake hand, following online outcry. Yet one of his most watched videos is "How to Make Out with Strangers”, in which he approaches random women in Miami, says things like “I’m seeing which beautiful girls would like to make out…with me,” and kisses them. The video received none of the same criticism, and earned him over 17 million views. You can see why he might not be getting the message. 

The difference between the two videos lies, of course, in consent, as Pepper at least pretends to ask the women's permission in the Miami video. Yet as YouTuber Laci Green gently points out in an open letter to Pepper written at the time: "You pressure women on camera to make out with you - again, many of whom are visibly uncool with it. Confused and caught off guard, they painfully follow through with your requests, clearly uncomfortable."

What's clear is that the internet is still trying to figure out what is acceptable in the realm of humour. Internet-friendly humour tends to be slapstick, brash, irrelevant, and involve making fun of gormless members of the public. But pushed to extremes - the extremes which can seem necessary to make a name for yourself in the saturated vlogger market - these gags can easily turn nasty. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.