An algorithm walks into a bar and orders a new joke

I'm sceptical about the marriage of machines and creativity

Share

Most of us don’t notice algorithms unless they go wrong. When an online retailer sends an email suggesting purchases they think you’d like, every one of them is a Sylvester Stallone movie because you Googled a trip to the Rocky Mountains a few days ago. Or, as happened last year, when Amazon had to remove T-shirts from sale because they were plastered with “Keep Calm and Choke Her”. The slogans were being generated by an algorithm trawling the internet for verb-noun combinations. But no one had thought to add a moral dimension to the equation, which would tell the computerised process that threats of violence might be in poor taste.

Even though the T-shirt designs might not have taken the fashion world by storm, this is still the way that more and more creative work is being done: an algorithm, albeit one designed by a person, now invents things which were once the preserve of human creativity – not just clothing slogans, but art, poetry and jokes.

I’ve tended to be sceptical about the marriage of machines and creativity. Isn’t the whole point of a poem that it speaks from one human being to another? When I read Virgil’s Aeneid, it doesn’t matter that it was written 2,000 years ago by a man I wouldn’t have understood. It couldn’t matter less that the big emotional scene is between the queen of Carthage and a prince of Troy. All that matters is that Dido’s heart is broken by Aeneas leaving, just like our hearts were once broken by people who weren’t good enough for us (though we sensibly didn’t throw ourselves on a pyre when they finally left).

The problem is, if anything, even more difficult when it comes to humour. Making people laugh is a difficult business at the best of times. Context is everything, which is why it’s so hard to make jokes work in translation. Word order, puns, references, resonance – all these things change from one culture to another, and from one language to another. On top of that, jokes aren’t a rarefied art form. They have to appeal to a mass audience. Think how feeble Christmas cracker jokes need to be to ensure they can be understood by everyone from small children to their great-grandparents.

And jokes are themselves only a part of what makes something funny. As Frank Carson succinctly put it: “It’s the way I tell ’em.” Comedians are more than the sum of their material: they’re performers. How can a machine in a lab replicate any of that? Quite aside from the strange dynamics of an audience, whose presence can have an alchemical reaction – their laughter redoubling not because of the comedian they’re watching, but because of the response of the rest of the audience.

I’ve just made a documentary for Radio 4 (who else?) about computational creativity – I’m not an expert on algorithms at all, but I do understand something about the difficulties that any performer or artist needs to overcome if they’re going to connect with an audience. The work that computers are creating (once the algorithm is in place) is incredibly wide ranging: visual art, poetry made out of tweets produced over the previous 24 hours, even comic one-liners.

The poetry is, unnervingly, no worse than Adrian Mole’s teenage efforts. Simon Colton of Goldsmiths College showed me how his algorithms search the day’s newspapers to calculate, from the headlines, whether it’s a happy day or a sad one. The programme’s mood is thus decided, and it can write something akin to poetry by picking key words from the newspaper articles themselves. Mr Colton’s computer can also turn Twitter into verse, finding short chunks of prose which fit the mood he’s chosen, then picking tweets which rhyme and scan and putting them in a meaningful order.

The jokes are the really tricky thing. Computers are getting better at identifying what might seem funny, but comedians don’t need to worry yet. Some scientists think that humour is the final piece of the artificial intelligence jigsaw: when computers can make us laugh, they will be as intelligent as humans. So when HAL takes over the world, at least he’ll have a punchline.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right. According to reports, Arthur has begun moving steadily northward at around 5 kt. and the tropical storm is expected to strike the North Carolina Outer Banks  

Thanks to government investment, commercial space travel is becoming a reality

Richard Branson
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week