Does Your Siri Make You Smile: The Nuts and Bolts of AI Comedy

I wrote for a robot one summer during graduate school, one of about six part-time jobs I took between school years (along with university "telefunder," lab rat, health/fitness teacher to girls in the inner city, and data entrant). It was a fantastic experience to bring personality to a rudimentary AI creation and work with a team of writers and robotic engineers. Our robo-ceptionist had high hopes of becoming a lounge singer, had to navigate the world of dating a Chevy Impala, and still encountered arguments with her overbearing Motherboard--all the while having the map of the building on hand to assist visitors finding their way around the facility.

One of the the joys and challenges of writing for her was to preempt possible questions, and create responses that were appropriate, witty, and within the character of the robot we'd assisted breathing life into.

Isn't she so cute? (and no, I'm not receiving any kind of affiliate linkage here!)

Isn't she so cute? (and no, I'm not receiving any kind of affiliate linkage here!)

Artificial Intelligence has advanced in leaps and bounds since I participated in this project well over a decade ago. We now have Alexa, Siri, and Poncho, to name a few. We're not quite to the level of Her, but hey, even I have some fondness for my Australian Male Siri. And this morning, when I asked him how I looked, and he told me, "Well, if I had to guess, I'd say you look mahvelous," well...maybe my cold human heart melted just a little...

So what is in the minds of these writers who give us our affectionate and/or sassy little bots? Katharine Schwab gives us a closer look in her article, The Daunting Task Of Making AI Funny.  She illustrates the challenges of using humor in AI, and how the writers meet them. Many of the writers come from a background in improvisation, and use this to their advantage when creating personalities.

[Sarah] Wulfeck [creative director of Pullstring] thinks of writing for chatbots like writing a script for only one half of the conversation—the other half is an improv partner. - Fast Code Design

Furthermore, it's important that our little bot-friends have a thick skin. If you've ever tried to insult Alexa, like my children have, then you'll know she has a polite comeback for everything. The patience of a nuts-and-bolts-saint. Cofounder of Howdy AI (Howdy is "a friendly, trainable bot that helps Slack teams with work"), Ben Brown, told Ms. Schwab:

"We have an approach that our bot always seeks to take the responsibility for the problem," he says. "It bends over backward to accept the blame and self-deprecatingly blame it on its own technology. Things like, 'gosh, with all this computing power available to me, I still can’t figure out what you’re trying to say.' It jokes about its inability to laugh or ability to know what the real joke is." - Fast Code Design

Maybe the bots should take to politics???

So, for now, yes, these bots have limitations, but writers have found some pretty entertaining creative ways around them. And if you have the time and patience to amuse yourself with your own little sidekick, you might discover some of these "easter eggs," giving a little nod to some screenwriter out there who's found a job in the aging 21st Century.