The Joking Computer
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The online version of the Joking Computer is now available.

Graeme Ritchie

I've always been very interested in language and in humour. Even when I was an mathematics student at the University of Dundee, I read Sigmund Freud's classic book about jokes. In those days, a computer would be big enough to fill a large room, but its brain and memory would be tiny by today's standards, and the idea of getting it to produce jokes would have seemed impossible. From Dundee, I went off for a year to teach maths and physics in Sierra Leone (with the Voluntary Service Overseas programme), but came back to the University of Essex to study linguistics.

           Graeme Ritchie

Edinburgh Castle

Then I moved to the University of Edinburgh, to do research in artificial intelligence. It was there that I began to work with computer programs which could process English language. Once I had my PhD, I worked in industry for a short time as a software engineer, then as a lecturer at Napier College (which is now Napier University), as a researcher at the University of Kent in Canterbury, and as a lecturer at Heriot-Watt University. These travels led me back to the Department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh. There, I worked on various projects to do with the computer processing of English: analysing word structure (morphology), getting computers to answer questions from a database of facts, allowing people to ask questions about workplans, and building programs which produced English text.

Finally, many years after that first attempt to read Freud, I began to work on jokes. Our first computational humour project (started in 1993) began the strand of work which has led to The Joking Computer. This line of development centrally involved the STANDUP project, which made the joke-building software accessible to children with cerebral palsy. Along the way, I wrote a book about the language of jokes, during exciting research visits to London, Amsterdam and Sydney.

antipodean trip


Since 2004, I've been a senior research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, in a group which works on getting computers to produce fluent English. My colleagues have built programs which write the text of weather forecasts, produce summaries of medical information, report on scuba diving sessions, and produce other kinds of text. So bad jokes are not the only things that computers can create.

All this work is particularly exciting because it is not really about the inner workings of computers. Instead, it explores the ways in which computers can be used to imitate (and help us understand) how human beings behave. This means that we get involved with people and ideas from fields such as linguistics, psychology and philosophy.

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