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. 

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How the Night Tube could give London’s mice that Friday feeling

London Underground’s smaller inhabitants might be affected by the off-squeak service – and learn when the weekend’s coming up.

What will the mice who live in the Tube network make of the new all-night service? Half a million of them are thought to have made the London Underground their home – and will be in for a surprise when the Victoria and Central lines keep running this weekend.

The Londonist is concerned the mice “are unlikely to get any sleep” with the new Night Tube, and may move to the District line instead. Yet a number of scientists point out to the New Statesman that mice are nocturnal creatures, most likely to sleep while the lights are on and the trains are running.

So will they get on board with the change – or make a run for different platforms on other lines?

The bad news:

“When the Tube’s away, the mice will play,” is how the rhyme (almost) goes. 

Many have come to know  and even love  the mischiefs of the mice who stream off the tracks and out of the tunnels as the stations close at night, in search of discarded morsels of Maccy D. And until now, they’ve had a good few hours to conduct such galavanting in peace. But the new system means they will have to re-structure their sleep and foraging cycles, or “circadian rhythms”. 

“The presence of night trains should upset several of these entrainment factors (or zeitgebers = time givers) leading to disturbances in their behaviours,” explains Professor Patrick Nolan, from MRC Harwell, an international centre for mouse genetics. 

“When you fly across the Atlantic, for example, it takes a few days to adapt, you feel a bit groggy, don't perform as well as you usually do, don't eat well, etc. You soon adapt to the change. But if there are constant disruptions like this, the effect may be more severe and long-lasting. And this is how the schedule changes in the Underground might affect the resident mice.” 

So it's the constant switching between the week and weekend schedules that could leave the mice  and Tube drivers  most cheesed off. Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and photophobia (sensitivity to light) are two possible effects of the resulting anxiety, and their mating patterns and liver functions are also likely to be disturbed.

The good news:

Yet it is unlikely mice will be leaving the Night Tubes for good. 

The more time we humans have to drop our dinners, the larger the menu becomes for the mice (researchers tell me that strawberry milk and Wheetos are particularly favoured fare).

“Mice are active most of the time – so more trains at night hours will not make such a difference to them,” say the RSPCA’s wildlife officers. “In fact, it may help as it may provide more foraging opportunities.”

They’ve also faced worse before. The London Transport Museum reminds us that, during the Second World War, cats were employed to counter vermin on the network (spot the cat in the 1940s TfL workers' canteen below).


Credit: London Transport Museum

For Dr Samuel Solomon at UCL, there is plenty to suggest the mice will successfully adapt. His study of mouse reflexes shows how they respond to various visual stimuli – and can start running within one-tenth of a second. “There might be cues they pick up – if people clean the station differently on Fridays, for instance.”

The tracks’ electric current may no longer be entirely switched off (if it ever was), but their whiskers’ sensitivity to vibrations could help them juggle their escapades to fit around the Night Tube’s less frequent service.

What Dr Soloman can’t yet predict is whether the mice will start to anticipate that Friday feeling: “It will be interesting to see whether they can learn that Friday is Friday”.

All in all, the Tube mice seem well set for the Night Tube’s new challenge. Who knows, they may soon gain the confidence of their 24/7 brothers in New York – and start ordering take-out...

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.