Humor and AI: Does It Travel?

Conversational interfaces such as chatbots and voice assistants present many localization challenges — humor, for example. And that’s not even considering if the original content was all that funny to begin with.The secret to AI comedy must be in the data Click To Tweet

Humor: The final frontier

“Are there any Scottish people in the audience?”

Always a great start to a presentation at a conference. The response I received was, “You’re going to show that Scottish Elevator Voice UI video, right?”

I wasn’t.

Instead, I used the top jokes from the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe as my opener to a workshop at ConverCon 18 on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI), personality, and conversational UI.

Of course, humor is an integral dimension of human personality and therefore part of that natural, conversational human-machine dialog. But humor has been called the final barrier for AI for good reason. There are many challenges.

I began my ConverCon workshop by telling the best joke from the Fringe.

“Working at the Jobcentre has to be a tense job — knowing that if you get fired, you still have to come in the next day.”

As soon as I recited the joke, I realized that it may not have been that funny to my global audience. Had they any idea what a Jobcentre is? It’s a British public service. In Ireland, the equivalent, an Intreo Centre, is offered by the Department of Work Affairs and Social Protection. In the United States, it might be called a WorkForce Center or One-Stop Center.

Conversational UI and the secret to comedy

Real US English examples of conversational interfaces, chatbots and AI can be tricky when it comes to humor.

Take this processing message from the Meekan scheduling robot on Slack. It makes a “witty” reference to hacking into TSA servers and No Fly Lists. I really winced at that one. I know what the TSA and No Fly Lists are, and I still didn’t get the joke.

Meekan scheduling robot on Slack (Image by Ultan O'Broin)

Meekan scheduling robot on Slack (Image by Ultan O’Broin)

This got me thinking about the challenges of humor and AI. If the secret to human comedy is timing, then the secret to AI comedy must be in the data, as well as the context.

Humor does have a place in conversational interaction, even in the most seemingly unlikely interactions, for example, Woebot. But humor needs to be done right.

Humor is not only the final frontier for AI, it’s a human personality trait that is easily lost in translation. Worse still, even in the original language, humor is not always that funny to everyone in a native audience. Of course, you don’t have to be Geert Hofstede to realize that humor doesn’t travel across cultures, but machines don’t get that. Yet.

So, as the localization industry rises to the challenge of dealing with AI, personality, humor, and the realization that no UI is the best UI of all, we can expect new talents will flourish to ensure that the conversational user experience resonates with the target audience. Do today’s translators need to have performing arts backgrounds or be comedians to enhance that local conversational interaction? I think storytelling skills are about to become hot property in every language.

Do today's translators need to have performing arts backgrounds or be comedians to enhance that local conversational interaction? Click To Tweet

Your punchline?

You may have other examples of humor and localization challenges from the world of technology. If so, share them in the comments!

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