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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”