Meet Botnik, the Surreal Comedy App That’s Turning AI Into LOL

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Meet Botnik, the Surreal Comedy App That’s Turning AI Into LOL

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“Innovation,” Jeff Bezos once said, “happens by gently lifting a grandfather and asking him for six different ideas.”

Actually, that kudzu bit of biz-speak inspiration isn’t entirely attributable to the Amazon CEO. It’s the work of Botnik, a new AI-assisted humor application that scours various types of human-created, word-crowded content—from season-three Seinfeld scripts to Yelp reviews to Bezos’ shareholder letters—in order to build predictive, idiom-specific keyboards. Those keyboards, many of which are available on Botnik.org, can then be used to write new, inevitably askew versions of well-known works: An episode of Scrubs, perhaps, or a Bachelorette soundbite.

The best Botnik creations, like this PBS-derived set of otter facts, retain the structure and wordplay of their source material, while adding a goofy, appropriately robotic sense of stiltedness. They all represent a new form of comedy, a human-computer collaboration, one that “gathers all these evocative phrases from a genre, and then builds them together in an absurd collage,” says Botnik cofounder Jamie Brew.

Botnik began in earnest last year, when Brew—then a writer for The Onion’s site Clickhole—began talking with Bob Mankoff, the artist and former New Yorker cartoon editor who, in 2005, launched that magazine’s popular caption-writing contest. During his New Yorker stint, Mankoff worked with both Microsoft and Google’s Deepmind department on projects that attempted to make algorithmic sense of the contest’s thousands of entries, with middling results. “I thought, ‘The computers [alone] aren’t going to solve this,'” Mankoff says. “‘If the humor problem is going to be solved, or even partially solved, it’s only going to be solved people working with machines.”

“A lot of gimmicky electronics will wiggle really hard when you press the wiggle button, but the Chunky Trapezoid
189 does it tastefully.” -A Botnik-produced “WIRED Product Review”

He then heard about a predictive-text generator that Brew had created, one that was inspired by hours spent on his smartphone, using its text suggestions to craft hilariously dull sentences. The phone’s bare-bones text-predictions, Brew says, “channeled the voice of the most boring person in the world. But when I noticed you can get a kind of poetry out of just taking this machine’s very limited suggestions, the next natural step was to try to apply this to other texts.”

The two paired up, and with support from Techstars’ Alexa Accelerator program, the Botnik team spent this past year building and fine-tuning several corpuses—essentially large language databases, each one culling from a specific pop-cultural genre or entity, like beauty ads, or *Savage Love* columns. Those terms populate the site’s individual keyboards, which allow you to craft sentences—each word dictating your options for the next—and ultimately your own weirdo missives.

It’s technology as well-informed collaborator, as opposed to a coldly automated content-creator. “What’s generated automatically by a computer only has a transient interest for us,” says Mankoff. “But [with Botnik], it’s a person working with a computer, and adding a kind of mastery to it. It’s based on the idea that you can write anything: If you want to write a country-western song, you’re accessing the predictive text of country western songs—but you’re not simply spitting it out. You’re modifying it.”

As of now, there are Botnik keyboards dedicated to Tennyson, pancake recipes, and animal facts—all genres with their own familiar structures. Much of the strange, spun-out prose these devices generate is then overseen by an editorial community of about 150 volunteer writers, including staffers from Saturday Night Live and The Onion. Using Slack, they upvote and cobble together the best entries, resulting in works like this Seinfeld script…

…or this cooking-tutorial video:

In both examples, the logic and structure of the original form remain intact—but they’ve been infused with a blunt, weird, hilariously assured sensibility that make the familiar seem alien. As Botnik chief scientist Elle O’Brien notes, the best Botnik entries “are the ones that hit you in that perfectly uncanny spot, where you recognize what they’re trying to mimic.” There’s even a keyboard dedicated to Wired’s product reviews, which yielded:

Botnik/Wired Top 5 Products Of The Week

  • Amazon Alexa: The newest version of Alexa will judge your outfits and insult your processing power. The most versatile model
    has a 99-watt megaphone. Switch it on and get ready for intimacy.

  • iPhone 8: The iPhone 8’s 2½-gallon bucket is a wonderful addition. It holds a lot of caramel.

  • Microsoft Surface: The Surface is little more than a rebranded box, and it shows movies like a futuristic metal donut. Higher
    resolution rainstorm videos available from your pixel dealer.

  • Chunky Trapezoid 189: A lot of gimmicky electronics will wiggle really hard when you press the wiggle button, but the Chunky Trapezoid
    189 does it tastefully. The new model immediately pops up on your
    couch, displaying a pitiful lack of motion.

  • The original iPhone: Read more. Even if you always read, you are still dumber than the original iPhone.

There have been other recent attempts to combine the fields of AI and comedy, including LOL-bot, a robot that used data collected from hours of comedy shows to create its own jokes, and DEviaNT, a program designed to spout out “that’s what she said” at the exact appropriate (or inappropriate?) time.

But the hope for the Botnik team—which recently contributed material to Amazon’s Alexa device—is that the application will be expanded beyond humor. “It’s a brainstorming tool for all kinds of creativity,” says Mankoff. “One of the possibilities for this going forward is that you’re stuck in the middle of an article, and the corpus you’re looking at is everything Brian Raftery ever wrote.” Which is a terrifying prospect—partly because it would require a computer to scour years of my bad-pun-filled writings, but also because it could possibly put me out of work.

Still, Mankoff insists no one should be worried about being replaced: “We’re not going to give it over the machines,” he says with a laugh. “Human beings always have to be at the center, just for the sake of humanity.” That’s what she said.

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