Why AI struggles to get April Fools’ Day humor

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WASHINGTON — A robot walks into a bar. It goes CLANG.

Alexa and Siri can tell jokes mined from a humor database, but they don’t get them.

Linguists and computer scientists say this is something to consider on April Fools’ Day: Humor is what makes humans special. When people try to teach machines what’s funny, the results are at times laughable but not in the way intended.

“Artificial intelligence will never get jokes like humans do,” said Kiki Hempelmann, a computational linguist who studies humor at Texas A&M University-Commerce. “In themselves, they have no need for humor. They miss completely context.”

And when it comes to humor, the people who study it — sometimes until all laughs are beaten out of it — say context is key. Even expert linguists have trouble explaining humor, said Tristan Miller, a computer scientist and linguist at Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany.

“Creative language — and humor in particular — is one of the hardest areas for computational intelligence to grasp,” said Miller, who has analyzed more than 10,000 puns and called it torture. “It’s because it relies so much on real-world knowledge — background knowledge and commonsense knowledge. A computer doesn’t have these real-world experiences to draw on. It only knows what you tell it and what it draws from.”

Allison Bishop, a Columbia University computer scientist who also performs stand-up comedy, said computer learning looks for patterns, but comedy thrives on things hovering close to a pattern and veering off just a bit to be funny and edgy.

Humor, she said, “has to skate the edge of being cohesive enough and surprising enough.”

For comedians, that’s job security. Bishop said her parents were happy when her brother became a full-time comedy writer because it meant he wouldn’t be replaced by a machine.

“I like to believe that there is something very innately human about what makes something funny,” Bishop said.

Oregon State University computer scientist Heather Knight created the comedy-performing robot Ginger to help her design machines that better interact with — and especially respond to — humans. She said it turns out people most appreciate a robot’s self-effacing humor.

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