Do robots dream of electric comedy?

Mhairi Aitken

Mhairi Aitken

Can comedy be automated? That’s the question I’ve been forced to confront in the past few weeks.

In case you have somehow managed to avoid hearing about ChatGPT, here’s the gist of things: essentially ChatGPT is like a bad stand-up act who thinks they’ve got what it takes because they’ve watched lots of stand up and can mimic the mannerisms and language of their favourite comedian, but lack any of the charisma or content.

That’s pretty much exactly what ChatGPT does: It’s been trained on a huge dataset of human language so that it can recognise patterns and mimic human speech or writing.

Since its release at the end of November it has been used by a staggering 100 million unique users and has been tasked with everything from answering customer service queries, providing mental health advice, starting conversations on Tinder and even in a judge’s ruling on a court case. It’s everywhere. And comedy is no exception.

This is where my main interests collide. I work in Artificial Intelligence (AI) – as an Ethics Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute (the UK’s national institute for AI and data science) – and have been doing comedy about AI for a few years now. But it worries me that many comedians are now looking to the possibilities of using AI for comedy.

In comedy, ChatGPT might be used as an improv partner to bounce ideas off, as a starting point for developing scripts or maybe even to write whole stand-up routines.

People are now trying to take shortcuts to creative outputs and using ChatGPT – or other generative AI models – to produce ‘creative’ or funny content. ChatGPT has been used to write poetry, scripts, song lyrics. There was even a never-ending AI generated online Seinfield-esque show, which aimed to recreate the essence of Seinfield without human performers, writers or directors. Ultimately it was halted when its mimicry led it to make thoughtless transphobic jokes, but overall the show was mostly fairly flat, with a dystopian end of days feel to the viewing experience.

Before you’re tempted to try it out, there are a few things you really should know about ChatGPT. Firstly, this isn’t the final product. When you use ChatGPT you are being used to test the system, providing it with more training data and feedback which can be used to develop future models, as well as future profitable products and services. Remember: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

But that’s far from the most exploitative aspect of how ChatGPT has developed. While the human labour is often invisible, AI relies on people to label data and train the AI model to produce appropriate outputs, in the case of ChatGPT this includes Kenyan workers being paid less than US$2 an hour to identify and label extreme content so that ChatGPT could learn what not to say. Protecting users from harmful content by exposing vulnerable, underpaid workers to the absolute worst of it is a pretty brutal way of teaching manners.

And then there’s the issue of what ChatGPT is – or isn’t – able to produce. Despite this being so-called ‘artificial intelligence’, it’s not intelligent. It can’t think, it doesn’t understand the words it produces. All it does is reproduce patterns from the human language it was trained on, and in many cases that also means reproducing biases and prejudices. So it isn’t going to be able to push boundaries in comedy: all it can do is recreate and mimic familiar territory.

As I write this, Google has just announced the release of its competitor to ChatGPT (Bard) and there any many other similar systems on the way. Perhaps it’s inevitable that we will see generative AI being used increasingly to create content for webpages, blogs and social media. It will increasingly be used by publishers and producers to create content or develop scripts quickly without paying for the time and ideas of human writers. Ultimately this will lead to increasing attempts to create comedy without a human mind, which inevitably lead to comedy without any soul or heart.

That’s why I am making this plea to be cautious about using these tools as shortcuts in creative processes. Please join me in laughing about AI – not with AI.

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From the Funny Women Team

2024 Awards – Expression of Interest

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Funny Women NextUp…Comedy Shorts Award

Are you a budding Director? Producer? Screenwriter? Are you collaborating with friends to make a funny video? Then we are looking for YOU!

If you have a short film or sketch that you think is hilarious, then enter your work for our Comedy Shorts Award to be in with a chance of winning some life-changing support and mentoring from comedy professionals.

WHAT KIND OF FILM ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?

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This award is open to all women filmmakers and content developers. The film must be an original narrative created, produced and devised by a woman, or women, although male cast and crew members are allowed.

ARE THERE ANY ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS FOR MY FILM?

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