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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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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

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