Back to Top

NU Prof who took part in spring convention panel back in the news

NU prof: Computer research no joke
Reviled by McCain but defended as 'hard-core computer engineering

September 2, 2010
BY MARK J. KONKOL Staff Reporter/mkonkol@suntimes.com

Have you heard the one about the Northwestern University researcher who scored a bundle of federal stimulus cash -- a $712,883 grant -- to create joke-telling software?

It's no joke.
» Click to enlarge image
Northwestern University computer professor Kristian Hammond says his automated humor-generation research is no laughing matter.

In a climate-controlled room somewhere on the Evanston campus, NU computer professor Kristian Hammond and a band of graduate student programmers are feverishly working to create super search programs aimed at creating "structured queries that lead to interesting, factual juxtapositions of ideas that lead to a humorous outcome . . . sometimes."

See, it's more geeky than funny. Seriously.

U.S. Sen. John McCain doesn't find the taxpayer-financed research funny for another reason. The Arizona Republican put the so-called "machine-generated humor" project at No. 36 on his list of the top 100 Most Wasteful Stimulus Projects.

And conservative bloggers took aim at the federally funded research with pithy Internet posts peppered with one-liners like this one: "Why do we need to pay for a joke machine when we already have Congress?"

Hammond says the project's title, "Computational Creativity: Building a Model of Machine-Generated Humor," gave the the artificial intelligence research effort a bad rap.

"The title created a flash point for us. There was a little brouhaha, but we are a structurally standard research organization," Hammond said. "The work is pretty innovative."

Hammond says his automated humor-generation research is no laughing matter.

They're working to create programs that mimic how people think when searching for information to create original, sometimes funny, content. The goal is to teach a computer to find information based on what you are working on, where you are located and what you're reading, among other things, without even having to ask for it. And one day, Hammond says, that type of automated content generation will replace modern search engines.

Hammond made the research proposal about humor because it's an "interesting human dynamic" that's attractive to very smart students who otherwise might not consider being involved in an artificial intelligence programming research project.

So far, Hammond's group has dozens of programs in development, and they've filed intellectual property patent applications for some of their work. The three-year stimulus grant funds four full-time jobs, pays for equipment and provides tuition and small stipends to two graduate assistants.

But there's bad news for struggling stand-up comics who could use a little artificial funny.

"There is no joke machine. . . . We're modeling human cognitive skills on a machine. . . . The engineering agenda is to create systems that create new unique content that is illuminating, educational and sometimes funny," Hammond said. "I'm sorry to say it: This is hard-core computer engineering. . . . I'm not really that funny of a guy."