WHAT do you get when you cross a fragrance with an actor?
Answer: a smell Gibson.
Groan away, but you should know that this joke was written by a computer. “Smell Gibson” is the C.P.U. child of something called Standup (for System to Augment Non-Speakers’ Dialogue Using Puns), a program that generates punning riddles to help kids with language disabilities increase their verbal skills.
Though it’s not quite Louis C. K., the Standup program, engineered by a team of computer scientists in Scotland, is one of the more successful efforts to emerge from a branch of artificial intelligence known as computational humor, which seeks to model comedy using machines.
As verbal interaction between humans and computers becomes more prominent in daily life — from Siri, Apple’s voice-activated assistant technology, to speech-based search engines to fully automated call centers — demand has grown for “social computers” that can communicate with humans in a natural way. Teaching computers to grapple with humor is a key part of this equation.
“Humor is everywhere in human life,” says the Purdue computer scientist Julia M. Taylor, who helped organize the first-ever United States symposium on the artificial intelligence of humor, in November. If we want a computational system to communicate with human life, it needs to know how to be funny, she says.
As it turns out, this is one of the most challenging tasks in computer science. Like much of language, humor is loaded with abstraction and ambiguity. To understand it, computers need to contend with linguistic sleights like irony, sarcasm, metaphor, idiom and allegory — things that don’t readily translate into ones and zeros.
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