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How Many Comedy Writers Does It Take to Help A.I. Tell a Funnier Joke?

Jokesters from Pixar and the Onion are on the case to make artificial intelligence seem more human

(Robin Zebrowski via Flickr)

Virtual assistants may be good at looking up the weather forecast or searching for a certain recipe online, but when it comes to jokes, they’re often stuck with a limited repertoire of bad puns. Now, in an effort to make its programs more human-like, Google is turning to the experts. As evidenced by the tech giant’s recent job listing, the company is actively seeking out experienced comedy writers to teach its A.I. how to tell jokes. 

A.I. may still seem like a facet of science fiction or advanced robotics labs, but as Christopher Mims reports for The Wall Street Journal, in the last few years, rudimentary A.I. programs have become much more commonplace in the world of consumer technology. Apple has Siri, Amazon has Alexa and Microsoft has Cortana, to name a few. But while they all have human-like names, software engineers have frequently been surprised to learn just how often people treat these computer programs like people.

“It’s so funny because I think ‘Oh wow, I am talking to a machine,’ but it doesn’t feel that way,” Carla Martin-Wood, an Alabama resident who uses Amazon’s voice-controlled and A.I.-powered Echo, tells Mims. “It is a personality. There’s just no getting around it, it does not feel artificial in the least.”

In order to foster this connection between human and device, engineers have had to figure out ways to make their programs more like 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL (minus the murderous impulses, hopefully). That means teaching these digital assistants to try and understand tone and to respond to questions and commands in a sociable way—basically making them act in ways that appear more human, Madison Margolin reports for Motherboard. And part of building that personality means teaching them to tell jokes.

“A lot of work on the team goes into how to make Alexa the likable person people want to have in their homes,” Daren Gill, who runs the product management team behind Amazon’s Alexa, tells Mims.

In recent years, many of these companies have turned to experts from places like the Onion and Pixar to help them figure out new ways to make their A.I. wittier. But getting a laugh out of the user is just the first step toward designing a device that can not only hold a conversation with its user, but potentially spark a real emotional connection, Margolin writes.

As voice-controlled computers become more and more accurate and adept, designing them to feel more human could make them more than just a feature on a phone: one day, they might even become something like a friend.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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