Studies have shown that laughing causes your brain to release the same feel-good chemicals as, erm, opioids. It helps form deep emotional and social bonds with others, it's an outright antidepressant, and it leads to better relationships.
People love being with people that make them laugh. Funny people are valued, because humour is complex. Laughter isn't only generated by jokes - we laugh at misfortune, slip-ups, slapstick, and suprise too.
So an AI that could write killer gags that make us chuckle uncontrollably would have huge, measurable positive effects on the very fabric of society itself.
Real human humour relies heavily on the context of the joke. Puns, mockery, dick-jokes, ridicule, sarcasm, witticism and satire all rely on "reading the room" perfectly at any given moment and delivering the joke with good timing.
AI is... not so good at this.
MONTAG'S COMEDY QUEEN REIGNS SUPREME
As ever, it turned out that eternal MONTAG hero Janelle Shane - the research-scientist-turned-neural network-lovin'-funster - had got there first, and knocked it right out of the park. She fed a huge tranche of gags into a neural network and let the AI do its thing - which, as long-time readers will know, means it trots out a load of absurdities.
The jokes she trained the AI on were of the simple, "What do you call a...?" kind - the sort that you introduce young children to to teach them what "funny" is. And just like a wannabe-standup toddler, the jokes the AI created with this limited understanding were more weird than funny:
What do you call a cat does it take to screw in a light bulb?
They could worry the banana.
What did the new ants say after a dog?
It was a pirate.
Why did the monsters change a lightbulb?
And a cow the cough.
What do you call a pastor cross the road?
He take the chicken.
What do you call a farts of tea?
He was calling the game of the dry.
MONTAG is not afraid to admit that an inappropriate amount of laughter was generated by reading these zingers, particularly the last one, which is possibly the basis of a gross-out sketch from French Absurdist Jackass.
However, the source of the chuckling was complicated: is a joke funny if it doesn't intend to be so?
Janelle's AI-created gags were funny, alright: but at their core, we're actually laughing at the enjoyably bizarre results of the AI failing to understand what a joke is and how they work.
Voicebox describes itself as "a creative keyboard for remixing language. It offers word suggestions based on custom source material, similar to your phone's predictive text."
Intruiged, MONTAG selected the "Jerry Seinfeld Standup" option and started typing. Maybe we just don't have the same legendary skill as The Great Jerry to select the right funny words andf arrange them into a sentence, but... well, would you want to watch a whole set of this material?
"KRAMER: The bearers of homosexual people don't suddenly run into somebody waving suits from cars, you know, Jerry."
While this bon mot could be (I guess??) a literally true observation in some very select circumstances, and maybe it's the kind of thing Kramer would say... but it's once again a mere absurdity, not a gag. And as anyone who has sat through a show by a Monty-Python-inspired amateur comedy troupe will know, bad absurdity makes for a tough laugh-free evening.
In other, more competant, hands, it must be noted that Voicebox does indeed start to drift into the realms of subtle satire, such as these faux-Wired tech reviews:
iPhone 8: The iPhone 8’s 2½-gallon bucket is a wonderful addition. It holds a lot of caramel.
Microsoft Surface: The Surface is little more than a rebranded box, and it shows movies like a futuristic metal donut. Higher resolution rainstorm videos available from your pixel dealer.
First of all, MONTAG would like to go one record and state that we'd love a phone that is also a futuristic metal donut. Yes, the chuckles here are again of the absurdist variety, but they're pretty good ones. However, it's hard to tell if the nose-thumbing at tech magazines' propensity to overhype new gadets is the influence of the human operator or Voicebox istelf.
The creators of Voicebox, Botnik, collaborated with Youtube comedy channel CollegeHumor and co-wrote a sketch using the technology. Humour is an ephemeral beast, so maybe you'll laugh a bit more than we did - but there is, if nothing else, hope in this sketch: surely AI-scripted comedy will get exponentially funnier.
LOL-BOT was billed as the World's First AI Comedian that "can generate its own on-the-spot jokes and pick up on real-time human reactions". It failed on two counts. First, it was fake - an April Fool's meta-gag, with the robot being operated by real humans, hidden backstage. Secondly, and most unfortunately, it wasn't funny.
Which means that the humans operating it were not funny, and thus the whole LOL-BOT operation actually contributed a net loss of humour to the universe. Well done, Team LOL-BOT.
Blueberry Improv Bot
Nobody wants Improv comedy. And yet, swarms of unfunny people flock to do it, for some reason. So why not actually make it interesting for the audience (presumably hostages, no-one would voluntarily go to an Improv event) and throw in some AI to keep the comedians on their toes?
Kory Mathewson, a PhD student from the University of Alberta, performs Improv comedy with the AI Robot buddy he created, Blueberry. Blueberry's AI was fed comedy in the form of a punishingly big meal: 1,200 comedy movie scripts, and when Kory and his buddies perform, the robot comic interjects with kinda-sorta non-sequiters which changes the path of the skit.
It's tempting to consider Blueberry as an AI stooge, secretly heckling average comedians from within the scene itself in the guise of a 'helpful' comedy companion. A collaborating partner of Kory's described performing with the robot, "like having a “completely drunk comedian” on stage, who was only “accidentally funny,” by saying things that were totally inappropriate, overly emotional or plain odd."
While having a real, extremely drunk person on stage might work better, Improv scenes featuring the robot have the added benefit of the flow being constantly interrupted, ensuring that any particularly unfunny moments don't last long.
But in a wider sense, there is a scrap of hope in Blueberry the Un-Funny Robot. Whether you find Kory funny is subjective, but he's clearly smart and onto something important. Humans are instinctively squeamish when presented with a robot that doesn't recognise its subservience - so what better way for a robot butler to show deference to its human owner than a few gags at its own expense?
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Most of the "humour" that AI produces at the moment is accidentally funny. But maybe if AI can learn what gets a laugh, maybe it can develop the kind of self-deprecating humour that all of our robots and interfaces will need if we are to accept them into our homes. And it wouldn't hurt if Robo-Jeeves could crack a joke to lighten the mood.
Until then, we hope Janelle Shane - who knows her way around a gag and how to coax machines into saying genuinely funny things - starts collaborating with Alexa, so we can fill the quiet moments at home with brand new jokes which spin old classics to interstellar-levels of weirdness:
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To screw in a light bulb.
What’s black and white and red all over?
A confuse on the bull!
What’s brown and sticky?
A potato, on the space.