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Robert J. Marks: Humor, Ambiguity, and AI

Robert J. Marks

From the annals of Stuff Artificial Intelligence Can’t Do: Robert J. Marks at Mind Matters notes that they can’t do ambiguity:

Groucho Marx (1890–1977) used to start one of his quips with “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas.” That seems clear enough but then he follows up with “How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

The punch line depends on the ambiguity of the question. At first, we interpret the words in a common-sense way; we assume that Groucho was wearing his own pajamas. The joke consists in surprising us with a grammatically possible but fantastic alternative. Contemporary comedian Emo Phillips quips that ambiguity is the devil’s volleyball.

Computers have no sense of humor. Given the sentence without context, they don’t have a clue who is wearing Groucho’s pajamas. A class of such ambiguous expressions called Winograd Schemas continues to baffle AI software.

An example of a Winograd Schema from Gary Smith’s fun book The AI Delusion is the sentence

“I can’t cut that tree down with that axe. It is too small.”

Does the vague pronoun “It” refer to the tree or the axe? Humans immediately understand that “It” refers to the axe. AI would not be so sure.

The Winograd Schema Challenge

Dr. Marks thinks it’s possible that AI may improve in its ability to resolve ambiguous language. Right now it’s not looking so good:

That’s the goal of gatherings called the Winograd Schema Challenge. [Pomona College economist Gary] Smith notes in The AI Delusion that AI success at these meetings so far is a bit above 50%. The result of random guessing for such problems is 50% so that is hardly an impressive figure.

Read the rest at Mind Matters, the news site of Discovery Institute’s Walter Bradley Center. 

A Taller Order

Humor must be an even tougher challenge for AI, since it often depends on language that has to be understood from the total context, but more than just that. Since yesterday was Father’s Day, consider the “dad joke,” characterized by Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski (via a story over the weekend at NPR) as “an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.” For example: “What does the buffalo tell his son in the morning? Bye, son!” To appreciate that, you’d not only have to get the pun, you would also have to get the concept of a dad joke itself. See the Twitter account Dad Jokes for many more.

Oh, and you would need to have the ability to sincerely enjoy, and to laugh. That’s an impossibly tall order for an algorithm. Humor, I’m confident, even the most rudimentary dad joke, is likely to be a capacity forever denied to computers.

Photo credit: Jordan Whitfield via Unsplash.