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9 March 2015updated 07 Sep 2021 10:55am

Could a robot make you LOL?

Artificial intelligence researchers are gradually turning science fiction or science fact. But building a robot like Bender is a bit of a long shot. 

By Tosin Thompson

Our brains are very complex, sure, but we’re not the transcendent beings we think we are, despite what that gray matter 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 it with other non-human brains and replicate it 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, ie, they want to see if robots can be funny. Crazy? Sure. This is mostly because humour is dependent on many 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.  

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In the paper, Radev and co take a computational approach to determine what differentiates the funniest captions from the rest.  They used a number of standard linguistic techniques such as concreteness, human centeredness and sentiment, to rank all 300,000 captions. Radev and co then performed Amazon’s Mechanical Turk experiments, in which Turkers were asked to judge the funniest caption.

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”. 

Maybe this is all a relief; it’s 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.

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