Can Technology learn to be Funny?

The Stand up Computer

Technology keeps getting smarter, smaller and more advanced… and maybe even some day, it will get funny too

Droid robot, making a stand up joke
The stand up computer

As the lights dims, a  full packed hall of happy people await for the spotlight to fall on a slightly Jon Steward looking android robot, rolling out and onto the stage, scanning the hall with its face-recognition software and connecting the results with its simultaneous captured data from network, bluetooth, laser and infrared input. Fast as lightning it reads the phones, updates, identities, interests, personality-traits, preferences and level of education of  every individual member of its audience.

The robot stops beside a high table with a glass of water on the middle of the stage. It picks up the classic old school mic. and pretends it forgot to turn it on… everybody laugh

It give it just enough time to run through the Twitter streams and Facebook likes of the audience. And just enough time to go on to combine the profiles of this specific audience with the latest global news-stories, trends and gossip about the rich and famous.  In a nano-second all the data is machined and transformed into a full, one hour, no human input version of a stand-up show, using advanced, secret humor algorithms.

With a smile it turns on the mic. and points out over the audience, rotate slightly in direction of the delegation from Massachusetts  and ask… “Anybody here from M.I.T…? ”

The strange thing about humor

Humor is one of the last things computers have no idea about – yet. Being funny, cheering people up with a great comment, and the ability to make those around us  laugh and smile is one of the most valued qualities across all cultures.

We humans love to laugh and when we do, many kinds of neuro-chemicals in our brains jump into action, in a way that make us feel everything from high, good, happy, relaxed – and crave for more. Humor is one of the best and most used social ways for us to relate, both to strangers, business relationships, friends and family.

But humor is still a long way from getting associated with technology. On the contrary most technology today is valued like a good, but dry and serious accountant. It has to be reliable, get the right results, cost little and never ever pull your leg, have a flu or bad day.

Take an example, if you get lost somewhere, a good friend would cheer you up, tell a joke and laugh at the situation, and make you feel a lot better, even though he had no clue of where in the world you where.  Your GPS system will do none of this, instead it will tell you to make a – U-t-u-r-n a-n-d f-o-l-l-o-w t-h-e d-i-r-e-c-t-i-o-n, not noticing or reacting to your frustrated face or the fact that it is now directing you toward Sierra Nevada in Spain, instead of Sierra Nevada in the USA

Not much to smile about right there – and the computer and software companies know very well that if they could just make that computer, phone, software or tablet funny too, the users would start to relate to it in a whole new level of emotional ways, that could be much more similar to the ways we relate to good friends and members of our local tribe. We would bound with it in entirely new ways.

The challenge for them is that they have also realized that it is way more complicated to learn a computer to be funny, compared to things like playing chess or finding the fastest road from A to B.

In humor there are no well-defined rules about what is funny and when, it all depends on the context, culture, person and a lot of other things. But the programmers are trying hard to develop algorithms and software-prototypes, testing out new approaches to teaching computers how to be funny.

And  there is a good reason for this, because the first developer, software engineer or tech-company that manage to create software that can produce something that is just remotely funny, might reach a whole new ( and scary) level of human-computer inter-relationship.

A level where people feeling sad or wanting company or an uplifting, relaxed laugh,  will prefer to buy tickets to a robot, real-time stand-up show or to sneak out in the garden to spend a few minutes with their phone’s stand-up app to get their humor fix, rather than having to rely on and slowly build up the more complicated, risky and fragile human to human relationships.

And the more time they will spend and laugh with the computers, the better the software will adapt to their needs and develop a tailor-made style and funny stories, targeted at this specific person’s sense of humor, in a way that software engineers hope will become addictive, in a lucrative way, on a global scale… some not to distant day.

Text and Drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt

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