Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Are Computers Funny?

Pretty funny for a computer.

Pretty funny for a computer.

My friends sometimes say that they can’t tell if I’m joking or not. I wonder if they’re more like computers than we might like to think.

As you may know, computers can actually create jokes. They have a much more difficult time identifying jokes. Sort of like some of my friends.

Constructing a joke often means following a pattern and, as we know, computers are pretty good at following patterns. As Margaret Boden points out, , “Humor is essentially a matter of combinatorial creativity.” Scott Weems seconds the notion, “When we create a joke we’re not inventing new thoughts or scripts, we’re connecting ideas in new ways.”

We’ve seen this before with innovation and creativity. Some of our most successful innovations are mashups of two or more relatively prosaic ideas. Rather than thinking outside the box, we pull old ideas from multiple boxes and combine them in new ways. The wheel is not a new idea. Nor is luggage. Only recently did we think to combine the two to create wheeled luggage.

Can a computer combine ideas in a humorous way? Well, sure. This morning I created about a dozen new jokes using the Joking Computer on the University of Aberdeen website. Here are the two best ones:

What do you call an American state that has a lip? Mouth Carolina.

What’s the difference between aluminum foil at noon and an amusing garden? One is a sunny foil; the other is funny soil.

They both follow a pattern involving rhymes, word substitutions, puns, and antonyms. I doubt that either one of them made you laugh out loud but they’re kind of cute.

Then I went to the Humorous Agent for Humorous Acronyms – HAHAcronym – website. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be active any more. I found two things humorous about this project. First, it could generate acronym definitions like:

MIT – Mythical Institute of Theology

FBI – Fantastic Bureau of Intimidation

Second, the project was funded by the European Union. Can you imagine the U.S. Congress funding something similar? It would almost certainly win a Golden Fleece award.

You may think that these software programs are not clever at all. They simply repeat a pattern. But we humans often follow similar patterns (sometimes called scripts) to create humor. Here’s one that I learned long ago and still use on occasion:

You can make most any sentence mildly funny by appending to it one of two endings:

….., said the Bishop to the chorus girl.   Or

….., said the chorus girl to the Bishop.

So, are we no better than computers? In some forms of joke production, we’re similar. But there are many forms of joke production. But the big difference is joke recognition and appreciation. Weems provides an example of a joke that we would get but a computer wouldn’t:

He is so modest that he pulls down the shades before changing his mind.

Why wouldn’t a computer get it? Because a computer doesn’t have world knowledge. It doesn’t understand that you might pull the shades before changing your clothes but that changing your mind is quit a bit different than changing your clothes.

Will computers ever catch us in humor appreciation and production? I suspect they will and fairly soon as well. I was surprised at how quickly computers solved the problem of driving cars. Or of grading essays almost as well as I can. It shouldn’t be long before computers can actually make us LOL.

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