Smorgasbord Posts from Your Archives – #Potluck – Can Computers be Funny? (2018) by Jim Borden

This is the final post from the archives of Jim Borden who blogs on ‘Borden’s Blather’ across a variety of topics. I know that my computer can be funny weird… frequently but have not so far seen it be funny ha ha!  So I decided to end Jim’s short series for this season with this post.

Can Computers be Funny? (2018) by Jim Borden

image from KS2 teacher resources

It’s a question that artificial intelligence researchers are asking themselves with greater urgency.

If one of the goals of AI is to allow humans to converse with computers in a way that is as natural, intuitive, and frictionless as conversing with people, then AI systems need to master irony, sarcasm, ambiguity, humor, and puns—aspects of conversation that humans handle with ease but that still baffle even the most sophisticated AI.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal James Geary looks at recent developments in trying to teach computers to be funny. Geary notes that puns point to the essence of all true wit: the ability to hold two different ideas about the same thing at the same time.

He goes on to state that the human brain is really good at this, thanks largely to what neuroscientists call the “default network,” which kicks in during mental states such as daydreaming and free association. At these moments, our attention is diffuse, and the brain gleans information from a broad array of sources. True wit will most likely be found by modeling the default network. In contrast, the brain’s “executive network” specializes in specific goal-directed tasks, like reasoning, planning and problem-solving. Current AI systems perform best when modeling the executive network.

Geary concludes by claiming that endowing AI systems with the element of surprise is perhaps the ultimate technical challenge.

I’ll share some of the jokes from the article that were generated by computers, and I’ll let you be the judge as to how funny you think the jokes are.

  1. “What kind of tree can you wear? A fir coat.”
  2. Here’s a one-liner overlaid across a picture of a bespectacled, bow-tied feline in front of a blackboard: “Come stay at Chemistry Cat Inn: Great day rates and even better nitrates.”
  3. “Your mate Johnny is a hard up deer-keeper. He really needs doe!”

And here’s a couple of jokes that were not generated by a computer program:

  1. A skeleton walks into a bar and says, “I’ll have a beer and a mop, please.”
  2. “What do you get when you cut a comedian in two?” “A half-wit.”

I think I’d have to say that the last couple of jokes are the cream of the crop, which shows that us simple humans are still better than computers in at least one thing.

But I am worried about the day when computers spend their time making fun of us with “dumb human” jokes. Once that happens we’re doomed.

Who’ll be laughing then?
©Jim Borden 2018

About Jim Borden

Husband, dad, brother, uncle, nephew, friend, teacher, ex-swimmer, blogger, vegan, juggler, learner, introvert.

Now that I’ve reduced myself to a cultural stereotype (with a hat tip to Woody Allen), who am I when I take away all the labels?

This blog has given me a chance to think more deeply about many things, and to share those thoughts with the world (well at least a really tiny part of the world). And in sharing those thoughts, I’ve started to understand a little bit of who I am.

A 60-something guy trying to figure out the world, and his place in it.

Emerson’s words capture perfectly the kind of life I hope to live:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Connect to Jim


My thanks to Jim for allowing me access to his archives and it would be great if you could head over and explore them further for yourself. Thanks Sally.

29 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Posts from Your Archives – #Potluck – Can Computers be Funny? (2018) by Jim Borden

  1. I doubt AI could yet create the skeleton joke, or others that needs that kind of visual imagination: e.g. Q: How does a a blind parachutist know he’s near the ground? A: When the dog’s lead goes slack. I wouldn’t count it out in the future though.
    For me it’s usually been people around computers that give the laugh. Around 1980 I knew some people working on early educational computer programs to teach grammar to deaf kids. Sometimes they used surfing terms to give feedback, including for a wrong answer “Oh what a bummer”. Within next to no time the kids were clowning about the classroom, laughing and pointing at each other, slapping their behinds and mouthing “oh what a bummer”. Not quite the language they were supposed to have learnt.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Weekly Round Up – Jazz, Winter Soups, Chocolate, New books, reviews and funnies | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

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