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Can artificial intelligence ever know what’s funny?

You can now play with a keyboard that has been “pre-trained” to riff on topics such as Blue Planet, beauty ads and John Keats poems.

During his 20 years as the New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff developed an interest in the creative potential of artificial intelligence. In 2005, he helped found the magazine’s cartoon caption contest and his desk began receiving between 5,000 and 10,000 entries a week. Mankoff – who studied experimental psychology at university – worked with Microsoft, and Google’s DeepMind, on projects that attempted to develop algorithms to distinguish between funny and unfunny submissions. 

For tech firms, developing machines with a sense of humour makes commercial sense. As electronic assistants and robots play an ever greater role in our lives, we’ll want them to be good company. Yet Mankoff, who this year became US Esquire’s humour and cartoon editor, thinks the quest to build wisecracking computers is a “dead end”.

“Machines in the end are idiots, or maybe idiots savants, that need humans to create content that’s going to be interesting to human beings,” he said when we spoke on the phone. Instead, he’s interested in the creative and comedic possibilities of human-machine interaction.

That’s why in 2016, Mankoff’s assistant at the New Yorker, Colin Stokes, suggested that he might like to meet Jamie Brew, a head writer at the parodic news website Clickhole who had created a predictive keyboard. This can be programmed with different texts: Seinfeld scripts, otter facts, or even New Statesman editorials. Start writing and it draws on the grammatical structures and vocabulary of its source text to suggest further words, producing sentences that are at once faintly recognisable and completely absurd.

Mankoff was intrigued. “I called Jamie and asked if he wanted to start an AI humour company,” he said. The result is Botnik Studios, a network of writers, artists and developers who are using the predictive keyboard to create spoof Scrubs episodes, weirdly wonderful YouTube cookery tutorials and surreal Halloween tips: “Reminder! Children should know that night infections remain as dangerous and as illegal as ever: A disease o’lantern is not something to celebrate!”

They have collaborated on motivational quotes: “Dance like a winner hates you”, romance novels: “Hot guy Jeff is devastatingly sexy and steamy. He’s got a really simple rule: be the ultimate playboy and get through one day without crying”, and Wired reviews: “The Surface is little more than a rebranded box, and it shows movies like a futuristic metal donut”.

Since October, the Botnik keyboard has been available for anyone to use. Most of the time when you type, computers act as editors, correcting typos and underlining grammatical errors. On a Botnik keyboard, as Brew observed, this is reversed. The computer is the writer, a tone-deaf genius pitching ideas, and the human is the editor. At you can play with a keyboard that has been “pre-trained” to riff on topics such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, beauty ads, John Keats poems, or Bachelorette season eight. And you can upload your own text files to the keyboard.

Earlier this year, Botnik was accepted on to a start-up accelerator run by the venture capital firm Techstars and Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant. When I asked about the firm’s long-term ambitions, Mankoff replied: “World domination – no one in Silicon Valley wants to hear less than that.” “We need to be more specific about our plan for world domination,” said Brew. “In our case the dream is building this community where people are able to easily recombine and remix texts from all over and share the content they make.”

Mankoff thinks of Botnik’s absurdist humour as “dada repurposed”. While the dada movement was a rebellion against the insanity of the First World War, Botnik is a reaction to “the insanity of this tsunami, this flood of almost incoherent information we are deluged with every day”. But perhaps it would be fitting to end with an inspiring quote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, via Botnik: “Innovation happens by gently lifting a grandfather and asking him for six different ideas.” 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia