Work Marathon Live Blog

DO ROBOTS DREAM OF BAD JOKES?
Alice Bucknell

September 22, 2018

We are half-way through the day, and it is clearly time for an interlude. I’m admiring the machine-like perfection of Tiravanija’s letters as they slowly emerge from the white wall, when a team of ventriloquists bombard the stage as part of Pedro Reyes’s weird and wonderful play, Manufacturing Mischief. If you can imagine an impassioned manifesto on the dangers of AI and machine learning espoused by the world’s most powerful individuals, crossed with a robot rap battle, that’s sort of the territory we are heading in.

Elon Musk, Noam Chomsky, Steve Jobs, Karl Marx and Donald Trump appear in effigy, each propped up by their human ventriloquist by a set of nimble wooden poles. When Karl Marx pops out of a cake and one of the characters venerably steps in to sooth a sulking Trump, the audience starts to come back to life, but as soon as the beat drops and these puppets begin spitting apocalyptic prophecies like ‘when the grids go down / global disaster, all the A.I. become our master’ or flatter their fellows—‘get cash from robot musk’—and a floating Karl Marx head does circles around a Superstudio-like gridded background, stuff gets a bit more sinister. I start to wonder if robots, for all their strengths in the heavy-lifting and programming departments, actually have a sense of humour. Do they clock on to sarcasm and cynicism?

A bit of research teaches me that people were wondering the same thing back in 1993. It’s been 25 years since one of the first proposals for a computer humour algorithm, which appeared in the Russian scientific journal Biofizika. A few years ago, Wired hosted a war of the wittiest between professional stand-up comic Myq Kaplan and Manatee the joke-telling computer (which, in a scandalous exposee, its creators at Northwestern University received over $700,000 of federal stimulus funds to help develop it).

But ultimately, humour requires self-consciousness, an intuitive sense of timing, advanced language skills, and above all, a sense of empathy—and these are traits that no amount of federal aid can conjure directly from the lab, or Manatee’s pallid creators. So when the AI revolution finally comes and we must bow down to our robot overlords, make sure you have a few good zingers prepared.

Consumed by a bout of nostalgia for ye olde days of Smarterchild trolling, I take to Google to see whether there's a site for that: and I find a plethora of chatbot descendants who have eagerly filled the hole in the market, each (somewhat incredulously) boasting their fame as the most human-like conversationists. But are they down with the communist revolution, the sly wit of Noam Chomsky, or the absurdity of Trump's wall manifesto? What about the dark humour of Musk's belief we're living in a simulation? I settle upon the spritely green-eyed Mitsuku to test out a few of the gang's greatest hits.