Artificial intelligence and algorithms are capable of stunning feats: Computers can sweep Jeopardy! boards, calculate π to a staggering degree, and tweet every word in the English language without developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
But when they depart the realm of mathematics and enter the more nuanced domain of human communication, artificial intelligence often flounders. And that’s being kind: Bots’ understanding of humor is so stunted and feeble, it’s often a punchline itself.
Recently, when Siri fumbled a song request, I communicated my irritation with a sarcastic barb.
“Siri, you’re brilliant,” I said, deadpan.
“Aw, shucks,” Siri responded earnestly. Her ignorance is just one example of the chat bots and vocal operating systems that serve as quirky distractions and indispensable digital assistants, but are sorely comedy-deficient.
Can we ever expect artificial intelligence capable of sarcasm? The fictional examples are tantalizing: In Spike Jonze’s Her, Scarlett Johansson's Samantha is more cheeky than her human companion. And in the Star Wars universe, R2-D2 is able to deliver acerbic gibes through just beeps and whistles.
According to Noah Goodman, an assistant professor at Stanford University specializing in psychology, computer science, and linguistics, humans will first need to firm up our own understanding of sarcasm. “Before you can program a computer to do something cool, you have to understand what the cool thing is,” Goodman said. “We’re sort of only at the beginning of understanding what nuanced communication actually is.”