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2 December 2017

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.

By Sophie McBain

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!”

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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”.

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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.” 

This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world