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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

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Sexless in space: the post-apocalyptic novels re-imagining the future of gender

In these fictions, the future has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

Devastating the world has a persistent lure for authors – not just because it gives them spectacular backdrops and unconstrained possibilities for their fiction. There’s also a political imperative to imagining catastrophe. “People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen,” says off-world survivor Christine Pizan in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan. “If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life.” That’s a delusion that has proved costly to Christine’s society. Now, above a scorched and trashed Earth, a fragment of the elite is sustained on a vessel named CIEL, which Christine calls an “idiotic space-condom”.

The dream up on CIEL is of impenetrable self-reliance. Even the inhabitants’ bodies, mutated by radiation, seem to be conspiring in this idea: hair gone, skin blanched, primary and secondary sexual characteristics withered and sealed. “I have a slight mound where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it,” explains Christine. “Nothing of woman is left.” The world, she says, has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

But this dream is both a lie and unsatisfactory. CIEL can only be sustained by extracting resources from the remnant Earth below. Its residents’ lives are docked at 50 years: any longer and they’d be an unacceptable burden on the finite reserves. Unfortunately, there’s no one to replace them. No sexual dimorphism means no having sex, which means no reproduction. CIEL is a dead end for humanity, and wombless, vaginaless Christine yearns for what used to be “between my legs, where a deeply wanting cavern used to cave toward my soul”. Female organs, so often presented as nothing but lack, are substantial enough to be missed when they’re gone.

In the absence of sex, the only thing left to do with one’s person is turn it into text. Culture on CIEL consists entirely of grafts – elaborate acts of storytelling scarified deep into pallid tissue, scrolls of skin stretched out and pouring down from the body, faces barely recognisable as faces after extreme modification. Christine is one great artist of the form; the other is Jean de Men, CIEL’s despotic leader, who converted trash fame into tyranny as the world fell apart. And yes, that does seem like a very on-the-heavily-customised-nose reference to Trump – but that’s not all the character is.

De Men is also a resurrection of his medieval The Romance of the Rose-author namesake, vicious misogyny and all – “all the women in his work demanded to be raped. All the women in his stories used language and actions designed to sanction, validate, and accelerate that act.” Stories are inscribed on bodies, shaping them to the culturally-imposed narrative; but stories can also be rejected, new ones written. Like the historical Christine de Pizan who blasted The Romance of the Rose in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies, Yuknavitch’s Christine kicks against the patriarch in writing. She authors a resistance by grafting a new and forbidden myth about the girl-soldier Joan of Dirt, who opposed Jean and was burned for her insurrection.

In Danny Denton’s debut The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, the dystopia stays on the ground, in a version of Ireland where the rain is constant, surveillance universal and violence ubiquitous: “The city festered; the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever… Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.”

Like Yuknavitch’s, the tale Denton tells is one of storytelling. There’s a Sweeney who sits on a barstool, sputtering disregarded truths into his cups like the mythical mad king. The slammed-together science fiction and folklore echo Flann O’Brien, and so does Denton’s dizzying playfulness as he flits through narrators – parts are told by a Death-like figure called Mister Violence, parts in script form, all in a densely allusive future-dialect.

It’s another world where resources are overstretched and fertility is at a premium. “Are simply too many people fighting over what’s left?” asks one character, and the most fought-over thing of all is the baby that the Kid in Yellow begets by T, the daughter of gangster chief the Earlie King. T dies in childbirth, and now the two men (well, the Kid and the man) war for custody of their progeny, to Mister Violence’s delight. This leads to some spectacular set-pieces, but for all Denton’s stylish bluster, the story slips away. These are ciphers, not characters (compare The Third Policeman for proof that it’s entirely possible to do character while populating a fantastical hellscape), and what happens to them holds little weight.

Slight as the Kid, the King and the rest of them are, they do at least have the benefit of existing. Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground. The Kid wonders: “Where the fukk are all the mothers?” It’s a good question, but an even better one is this: where has Denton put all the women who aren’t mothers, or substitute mothers, or whores, or dead? Unlike those of Yuknavitch, Denton’s metatextual flits don’t extend to an interest in the politics of who gets to tell these stories.

Maybe it takes Yuknavitch’s smarts about gender to write environmental dystopia: it’s impossible to think seriously about what humans are doing to the planet if you can’t think beyond the old macho ideas that fix the human subject as male (penetrating, hard, whole) and women (penetrated, soft, holed) as a subsidiary material. Vulnerability and humanity are not mutually exclusive, although our stories have long insisted otherwise.

In her own reading of the Joan of Arc story, Andrea Dworkin noted that Joan’s virginity wasn’t a statement of purity but “a radical renunciation of civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice”. In other words, Joan refused intercourse because
it would have marked her as female, with all the inferiority that entailed.

Yuknavitch’s weirdly beautiful Joan is a reinvention of what being human is. We are not something against nature but something within nature, permeable and dependant on the world, no matter how we tell ourselves we can stand above our planet and exploit it. 

The Book of Joan
Lidia Yuknavitch
Canongate, 288pp, £14.99

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
Danny Denton
Granta Books, 368pp, £12.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist