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PC gags can make us giggle, computer study shows

For many of us computers are a likely source of frustration rather than amusement - but now, experts at the School of Informatics have enabled computers to generate jokes that make people laugh.

Scientists have created a computer program that creates one-liners in the popular style of “I like my men like I like my tea - British”. By using massive amounts of data, their software automatically creates funny combinations of words to fit this template.

The computer-generated witticisms were tested on a group of volunteers alongside jokes in the same style gathered from Twitter. Testers found that the computerised gags did make them laugh, although not as much as the man-made humour.

In their joke-generating software, researchers tried to create one-liners with an element of surprise - a key component of successful comedy. The jokes were created by searching for unlikely pairings of words, and an unusual connection between them.

This led to novel jokes such as ‘I like my men like I like my monoxide - odourless’ and ‘I like my women like I like my gas - natural’. The scientists at the University of Edinburgh who built the system say that their work has a useful purpose in helping computers better understand and process language.

However, for automated jokes to improve, programs would need to have cultural awareness. People use words differently depending on their cultural background, and encoding this represents a very difficult challenge.

Computers have an advantage over people in that they can process masses of information, so we fed computers a wealth of material from which they extracted creative and unusual word combinations to fit our joke template. The holy grail for machine-generated comedy would be to include cultural references, but these are very hard to capture.

David MatthewsSchool of Informatics

The study is to be presented at the Association for Computational Linguistics annual meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, next week.