From generating puns to getting jokes, teaching AI about comedy

A look at ongoing research into artificial intelligence and humour.

Can artificial intelligence create genuine laughs?

The Spark official robot: amusing us since 2007. (Nora Young)

Humour is very important to humans. It bonds us to each other. It can help us see something in a new light. So, if we're heading into a future where we live ever more closely with robots and artificial intelligence, they ought to be able to understand when we're joking, and maybe even joke around with us.

He He, Assistant Professor, NYU Computer Science (copyright szha)

He He is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science department at New York University. She's been trying to teach machines to make puns. And, it turns out, that's a difficult thing to do.

"One big challenge we had is we don't have a good metric for humour," He told Spark host Nora Young. "Our current computational models cannot differentiate from sentences that are creative versus something that is simply nonsense."

Purdue University associate professor Julia Rayz (submitted by Julia Rayz)

Julia Rayz is an associate professor in Purdue University's Department of Computer and Information Technology. Her focus is not so much on teaching computers to tell funny jokes. She looks at what it takes for computers to understand humour.

"It is fairly easy to find words that sound similar, but if you ask a computer to explain why it generated something, it will draw a blank. And the same goes with detection," said Rayz.

So is it just a matter of time until computers will be sophisticated enough to "get" jokes?

"It depends on how far along we get into understanding our own cognition, and what it takes to model jokes, before they can be successfully programmed in a computer," said Rayz.

However, Rayz is optimistic. "Surely we should be able to reach a point where a computer would be able to understand when we're joking or when we're absolutely serious. Some would argue that it would be essential for normal human-computer interaction, especially if computers are going to play a more important role in our lives," she said. "I would definitely not want a computer to take an action on something I said jokingly."