It’s been said that the true test of mastering a foreign language is the ability to make a joke in that language. While a sense of humor is usually second nature for most native speakers, it’s surprisingly difficult—if not impossible—to teach. It’s so difficult, in fact, that some reason that the development of a sense of humor will be the ultimate test for artificial intelligence. To understand the difficulty in teaching artificial intelligence to be humorous, consider what goes into making a joke.
What’s in a joke?
On a recent trip to Australia, comedy writer, David Misch observed two manta rays engaged in—shall we say—extracurricular activities. With perfect comedic timing, he quipped “Hey! It’s fifty shades of ray!” The joke led his friend, a former computer programmer interested in artificial intelligence, to think about whether a computer could ever be programmed to make that joke—not merely be programmed to repeat it, but truly generate it were it exposed to the same circumstances that David Misch was.
In the end, it was determined that in order for an artificially intelligent computer to make that joke, it would need to be able to perform numerous, instant calculations. It would need to be able to connect the two very different topics of manta ray intercourse and human S and M, then it would need to be able to access the entirety of pop culture references to human S and M ultimately settling on Fifty Shades of Grey. Then it would need the ability to appreciate the pun, understand the rhyme of “ray” and “grey,” and gauge the audience’s ability to get the joke. Finally, artificial intelligence would need to do all of this in a blink of an eye to achieve good comedic timing (the joke wouldn’t have been funny five minutes later).
The moral of this story is that a lot goes into the making of a good joke and artificial intelligence is still far away from being able to replicate it.
Though artificial intelligence is still a long way away from developing a sense of humor, that hasn’t stopped humans from trying. Apple executives, for instance, were not overly thrilled to learn that those who programmed Siri, the iPhone’s built-in personal assistant, had managed to work in a few jokes. Microsoft’s counterpart, Cortana, is likewise programmed to give humorous responses to certain questions. Of course the major difference is that these artificial intelligences are merely parroting back jokes that they were programmed to say in response to specific questions, not generating their own humor.
The ultimate test
Some have theorized that in order for AI to reach its full potential, humans will need to feel comfortable interacting with it. Developing a sense of humor will certainly need to be a part of that process. Of course, that’s easier said than done. For the time being, we’ll have to be content with Siri’s dry sense of humor that she inherited from computer programmers.
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