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Why Can’t Robots Understand Sarcasm?

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tl;dr We're at least 20 years away.

Missy Cummings, an associate professor at MIT studying human interaction with systems, says sarcastic bots aren’t possible with today’s technology. “Robots [are still] having difficulty understanding very clear, distinct commands as opposed to nuanced differences based on sarcasm,” she said. A sarcastic robot is a “Holy Grail,” she explained. “You could do all the machine learning in the world on the spoken word, but sarcasm is often in tone and not in word,” she added. “[Or] facial expressions. Sarcasm has a lot of nonverbal cues.”   

Cummings also notes—perhaps sardonically—engineers may not be the best equipped to decipher sarcasm and transform it into code: They require help from comedians. “We need to think more about how to make this a more collaborative process between a lot of different types of researchers,” she said.

It’s an idea John Lutz, the comedian who writes for Late Night with Seth Meyers and played 30 Rock’s dopey J.D. Lutz, is entirely open to. “I know the world is clamoring for the Lutz-bot 4000, and who am I to deny them,” he told me. Besides, Lutz notes, advanced artificial intelligence is already on primetime television. “I think Bill O’Reilly is doing a really nice job,” he said. (Were a computer to read Lutz’s quip, it would likely interpret the jape literally.) Comedian Keith Powell, who also starred on 30 Rock, says robots don’t need to learn sarcasm: They’ve nearly conquered the world already, and done a fine job stamping out interaction, human or otherwise. “I wait in line for coffee, and everyone is looking at their phones,” Powell said. “At this rate, robots will not need to discern sarcasm in conversations because there will simply be no conversations.”

If sassy robots are far off, can scientists at least share a tentative date for their arrival? “Sarcasm, irony, any kind of nuanced emotion [in artificial intelligence]—we’re incredibly far from that,” Cummings said. “In an academic world, I think we would say 20 years, at least.”

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