The Automation of… Comedy?

By Mike O’Brien

The inexorable tide of automation is upon us, and as economists and futurologists forecast the obsolescence of human roles in the service and retail sectors, one can’t help but ask: where will it end? Is anyone among us truly safe from machine replacement? Oxford University reckons that mental healthcare professionals, detectives, and teachers can sit tight. Uniting these roles is the irreplaceable human touch – so surely comedians, the heart and soul behind the human instinct of laughter, are safe… right?

Well, the writers behind Cards Against Humanity put machine learning to the test for this year’s Black Friday stunt by teaching an AI to write packs of cards for the game. For the uninitiated, Cards Against Humanity is a comedy party game in which a ‘black’ card containing a sentence with a few words blanked out is laid on the table. The players use a combination of their randomly drawn ‘white’ cards – which contain everything from concepts to historical figures to pop culture references – to fill in the blanks. The funniest answer is then chosen by the Card Czar of the round. To put the comedic capabilities of AI to the test, the creators of the game are let the public vote on whose packs were funnier: the in-house comedy writers, or the bot. If the writers won, they’d get a $5000 holiday bonus. If the bot won, the writers would be fired.

In the end, the writers clutched victory – but the bot did win a staggering 48% of the votes, a significant victory for machine learning in any event. Pictured below are the top ten cards from both the writers and the bot:

But the AI comedy uprising doesn’t stop there. In fact, the being that gets the most chuckles out of me on any given day is no human being at all – it’s a robot from Sydney, Australia named ShitpostBot 5000.

Do suspend your snobbish instinct to dismiss ShitpostBot by name alone, because it is truly outstanding. The magic behind ShitpostBot is an enormous nexus of meme templates and source images, the majority of which are submitted and curated by fans on its website. Every half hour, ShitpostBot will randomly combine a meme template and a number of source images to create a completely unique meme of its own and upload it to Facebook, often with incredible results. The memes themselves are, at times, uncannily high-quality to the point of being mistaken for legitimate human posts. Naturally, quite a few of ShitpostBot’s unrelenting uploads are utterly nonsensical – but even these otherwise worthless memes are made comedy gold by the brilliant community following it. The comment section is full of meta memes desperately trying to interpret meaning and identify trends in the bot’s completely random and baseless output, with key themes including speculation on ShitpostBot’s ‘sentience’, its inexplicable hatred of dogs, and its outspoken (if erratic) political commentary.

Below is a curation of my favourite ShitpostBot memes. You can follow the Facebook page here, and even donate to its Patreon to keep it alive if you’re feeling generous this holiday season. None of these memes were created by a human being; they were all formulated by the glorious bot.

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For those after something slightly more highbrow, Botnik is ‘a machine entertainment company run by comedy writers’, and their output is unarguably the most innovative and sophisticated avenue of automated comedy yet. Going a step beyond the constraints of the standard meme image format, Botnik’s AI has produced everything from infographics to screenplays to songs. At its core, Botnik’s mind is essentially a predictive text AI which its developers ‘feed’ content to. From there, the bot identifies trends in tone, language, and structure which it uses to generate similar content. A simple example would be feeding the bot all the lines from the Harry Potter series, from which it produced a Harry Potter script of its own. The bot’s textual output is hysterical enough, but the Botnik team takes it a step further: it actually produces the AI’s scripts into works of artistic madness.

Some of its best efforts include a video of inspirational quotes based on a database of existing ones:

The bot’s disturbingly psychotic review of a fire extinguisher based on Amazon reviews:

And finally, a song produced by training the bot with both Morrissey lyrics and Amazon reviews of the P90X Home Workout DVD System:

Whilst all are impressive feats, it is highly unlikely that machines will independently produce and deliver comedy even half as decent as your local open mic’s worst bit. But that doesn’t mean robots can’t be funny – and they will only get funnier from here. We laugh now, but when Skynet flexes its monopoly on cyber-laughter, we’ll understand that no occupation is truly safe from the wave of automation.