Tapestry

Being funny is part of being human — and AI is catching on, says comedian

Comedian and Ph.D. student Christopher Molineux says humour is at the core of what it means to be human. But what happens if AI can learn to mimic - and possibly even surpass - human efforts at telling jokes?
(CBC)
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Comedian Christopher Molineux tells this joke as part of his stand-up routine:

"I get on the plane first. I sit down and then I watch people come in, and I always know who is going to sit next to me. I'll be sitting there — no, no, no, — I wish — no, noooooo! You know? I always know who it's going to be."

It's a joke that relies on good delivery, which is something artificial intelligence (AI) doesn't have — yet.

Why is something funny?

Molineux is a Ph.D. candidate in Humour Studies at Brunel University London. He's researching the origins of humour and how to design humour systems for AI.
Comedian Christopher Molineux says in order for AI to be human, it has to be funny. (Christopher Molineux )

He said AI should be better than humans at cracking a joke because they maintain a large database of jokes. They also take stock of you in ways the average person can't.  

"AI has the ability to read into things like your respiration, your pulse, knowing your browsing history and how much you know about a given subject," Molineux told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

"So it has the potential to actually process far more information than we can in that regard."

Humour's playing a joke on us

But humour is made up of a lot of moving parts. 

Molineux said just because humans have a leg up on AI when it comes to what's funny, that doesn't mean we necessarily know why.   

"If you go to a country where you don't speak the language, you can still be funny. You can still be funny using your face, using sounds," said Molineux.

"You can be funny without language. But you can live in a country for 30 to 40 years and learn the language and learn the culture and still … say, 'I still don't get the humour.'"

Molineux said people often downplay the importance of humour. And in that way, humour gets the last laugh.  

"Humour is universal. It exists in every country. It exists throughout one's life," Molineux said.

"Yet at the same time, it's a subject that we have told ourselves, 'If you try to figure out why something's funny, it's not funny anymore. So let's not do it.' It's like this taboo. It's almost like humour has played a joke on us all in and of its essence. It's pretending to be a joke! I'm arguing that it's one of the cornerstones of what it is to be human."