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Surprising Science

Can Computers Be Taught to Be Funny?

If computers are to interact with humans as other humans do, they will have to learn to be funny, or at least think they are funny. Computer scientists are teaching machines to tell jokes.

What’s the Latest Development?

While mastering a human language is an enormous task for a machine, the ability of computers to interact with with people is improving, from speech-based call centers to Apple’s Siri. Enter humor, the glue that binds many bits of human conversation. Computer scientists increasingly see it essential for computers to have a sense of humor. To achieve this, “computational humor researchers have by and large taken a more concrete approach: focusing on simple linguistic relationships, like double meanings, rather than on trying to model the high-level mental mechanics that underlie humor.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Given the complexity of humor and human language, even the best standup computers are limited to rather corny puns. But larger feats lie ahead. “The goal of computational humor, and of computational linguistics as a whole, is to design machines akin to the shipboard computer on ‘Star Trek’—ones that can answer open-ended questions and carry on casual conversations with human beings, even William Shatner. … If computer humorists can answer any of these questions, we won’t just get a deeper understanding of how language works but also, ultimately, what it means to be human.”

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