Q: Why is a laser beam like goldfish?
A: Because neither one can whistle.
That was a line from Mike, the joke-telling computer in Robert Heinlein's classic novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Reading this book made me curious about the current state-of-the-art for computer generated humor. And what, if any joke apps might be available for my iPhone.
Joke-telling computers are still an area of active research. What we'd really like is Heinlein's Mike character—an artificial intelligence that employs machine learning to decide what is, and isn't, funny. It turns out this is no small task. Computers that develop funny jokes (computational humor, as it's known in the AI industry) require "mastery of sophisticated functions like self-awareness, empathy, spontaneity, and linguistic subtlety." Stuff most computers can't handle yet.
This TED Ideas article confirms the challenges of computational humor. According to Kevin Litman-Navarro, "If we ever want to build AI that simulates human-style intelligence, we'll need to figure out how to code for funny."
The closest thing we have today is The Joking Computer. The web page is accessible using Safari on MacOS 10.13.6, but somewhat difficult to navigate due to its complexity. Only the most joke-hungry blind users will navigate through to actually generate a joke. Sadly, it's jokes aren't always all that funny. Here's an example.
Q: What do you get when you cross a bicycle with an alley?
A: A bike street.
According to the Joking Computer, that joke is supposed to be funny because bike street sounds like back street. Many jokes are constructed this way, but computers have a hard time with the subtle nuances of spoken language.
The web page lets you rate the joke and provide other feedback. Hopefully my response will help the computer embarrass itself less going forward.
I thought the dream of a standup comedian robot might never come true. Then I found this Silicon Based Comedy TED Talk video (worth listening to even if you have no usable eyesight). This robot tells jokes from a pre-programmed list, but also gauges its success or failure based on audience response and uses that information to select subsequent jokes. It did pretty well, I must admit. But I don't think this robot is quite ready for the Second City Comedy Club.
Making your iPhone Funny
We're still waiting for the droll computational humor of Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams's books. And we'd rather have humor in our pockets than the robotic Twiki zinging one-liners from the old Buck Rogers television series.
So how do we make our iPhones funny?
SIRI, the Pocket Comedian
I think SIRI stands for Sarcastic and Irritating Response Incubator.
Computers can be pretty funny simply by selecting from a list of pre-programmed responses. This is exactly what Apple did when they made SIRI. If you've never asked SIRI "Where's Elvis?" or "What is zero divided by zero?" then you might want to check these ways to make SIRI say funny things. (Disclaimer: Apple modifies SIRI with each iOS version, and some of these no longer work.)
I recently asked SIRI to tell me a joke. Here's what she said.
A skeleton walked into a bar and said, "Give me a drink. And a mop."
Good one, SIRI!
Joke Apps for your iPhone
If you just want an app that throws jokes in your face, you've come to the right blog. There are plenty available free on the App Store that simply display one joke after another from a large pre-programmed database.
Preparing to be blasted with some of the corniest jokes ever, I bravely typed "joke" into the App Store search field and downloaded a handful of random apps. All are free with in-app purchases. Here's what I found.
Best Corny Jokes! Silly LOL
I love corny jokes. It's a weakness. When I saw this app come up in the search results, I immediately downloaded it and gave it a try. I wasn't disappointed.
This app is accessible for the most part, but could be enhanced to improve accessibility. I couldn't swipe right to get to the Next button and had to find it by dragging my finger. I tested v2.4.5 by Michael Quach.
I got a chuckle from this joke:
Q: What did zero say to eight?
A: Nice belt.
Many of the jokes were old and tired, but probably still entertaining for those who haven't heard them yet.
Epic Jokes - Best Jokes Ever
The app is accessible, but you have to know its idiosyncrasies. The joke is displayed in a text box. If you swipe right or left into that box, it reads the whole joke, but if you touch the box with your finger, it reads only the one line that you touch. Other than that, the app is fine. I tested v1.0.3 by Nour Nicolaos Moubayed.
Mysteriously, the app wants to turn on notifications, but doesn't explain why. What could it possibly be trying to tell me? That my shoes are untied?
The app has some pretty good one-liners, probably geared for a more mature audience. Here's an example.
I'm not saying I hate you, but I would unplug your life support to charge my phone.
Younger children will enjoy some of the jokes too, like this one.
Q: What does a cloud with an itchy rash do?
A: Finds the nearest skyscraper.
Free Funny Jokes
To get a joke, you drill down through a hierarchy of joke types, such as April fool jokes or knock knock jokes. This might be a handy feature, but if you'd rather your app just stick a joke in your face, then this app isn't for you. I tested v1.0 by Ahmet Baydas
Q: What makes a glow worm glow?
A: A light meal.
Ouch. That joke was so bad it's wanted for criminal corniness.
Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes For Kids
The app developer is an author, and a web search turns up several books in this series. Sadly, this app is not accessible for the most part. The row of tabs at the bottom of the screen is impossible to access using VoiceOver. The app requires you to create an account or enter a guest username, and I couldn't find a way to work my way through the log in process without sighted help. I tested the latest version, version number unknown, by Rob Elliott
Q: What happened to the beans when they showed up late for work?
A: They got canned.
That joke tickled my punny bone.
I hope the app developer takes the time to make this app accessible.
The Best Ending for Any Joke
Whether the joke is good or bad (or especially if it's bad), for maximum effect you must follow the joke with a rimshot—the infamous ba-dum-bump drum sound. Fortunately, some comedian with web programming skills gave us exactly what we need—an accessible web page that plays a rimshot on your phone. Just visit the Instant Rimshot web page and play the MP3.
I think it's only fair that I should try to come up with a joke myself. Here it is:
Q: What kind of drink does the Genius Bar serve?
A: An Apple sour.
Ba-dum-bump! I'm now dodging left and right as blog readers furiously throw rubber chickens at me.
The fact that it's hard to create jokes and not all jokes are funny to all people, only underscores the difficulty in creating a funny computer. While computer scientists have made great strides in artificial intelligence, we're still a long way from creating a robotic Ricky Gervais. Until that day comes, at least we can load our iPhones with thousands of free jokes.