Microsoft AI and laughter converge at the National Comedy Center

Photograph of two participants before large computer screens in the Laugh Battle exhibit, with others looking on.

Q: What did the janitor say when he popped out of the closet?

A: SUPPLIES!

Did you laugh? The joke is one of 100 pre-scripted zingers offered to players of Laugh Battle, an interactive exhibit at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, that invites guests to challenge each other to see who can make the other crack a smile.

“It gives visitors a taste of what that thing is that comedians get so addicted to, that incredible feeling of making someone laugh,” said Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the museum, which opened to the public Aug. 1 in the hometown of comedy icon Lucille Ball.

Microsoft artificial intelligence technology from Azure Cognitive Services is the behind-the-scenes judge of whether a player’s joke gets a laugh.

Mitra Azizirad, corporate vice president for AI marketing at Microsoft, said it’s an example of how AI is making an impact far beyond the tech industry.

“We are making AI accessible to everyone, expanding it beyond the world of developers and data scientists to every person – especially in ways that are universally understood and touch the heart,” she said. “Nothing does that better than laughter.”

The fact that AI is being used in an exhibit at the nation’s first museum dedicated to the culture of comedy resonates with Azizirad on a personal level. She got her first steady standup gig from her third-grade teacher, who carved out time – every Thursday from 3:00 to 3:30 pm – to corral Azizirad’s free-form approach to teacher imitations and comedic takes on the week’s events.

“I continued to perform standup through my college career, and even in the business world I’ve always found a way to incorporate humor and comedy, using it for team building or including funny anecdotes in speeches,” she noted.

Photograph of Mitra Azizirad, with vibrant red hair, looking off into the distance.
Mitra Azizirad, corporate vice president for AI marketing at Microsoft, said the Laugh Battle is an example of how AI is making an impact far beyond the tech industry. Photo by Stephen Smith.

Comedy leans into tech

The Laugh Battle is one of more than 50 interactive exhibits at the National Comedy Center, which uses technology throughout to showcase the story, history, art and personalities of comedy.

Upon entry, visitors answer a series of questions about what they find funny across the comedic spectrum, including personalities, TV shows, movies, podcasts and the internet. A computer program uses the answers to build a sense of humor profile, which is stored on a RFID chip that visitors wear on a bracelet – a laugh band – throughout their stay for a personalized experience.

For example, an exhibit called the Comedy Continuum features a wall-to-wall touchscreen with a never-ending spider web of connections between artists, media and mediums that allows visitors to explore influences, histories and trajectories of the personalities, films and shows that match their sense of humor profile.

People who enjoy the movie Dumb and Dumber can explore in one direction to discover that the film’s co-star, Jim Carrey, had a long standup career before launching into film. Another direction follows the connections between Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the screenwriter-director brothers who collaborated on Dumb and Dumber as well as other notable hits such as Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary.

Other technology-focused exhibits at the museum allow visitors to explore comedy in the digital age, such as how comedians leverage social media to hone their craft.

“In the past, they would have to wait until their next gig days later to try out a new joke,” said Gunderson. “Now, with technology, with a smartphone in their pocket, they can tweet out a joke and get a reaction instantaneously.”

Enter the Laugh Battle

Visitors encounter the Laugh Battle exhibit in the final wing of their tour through the museum. By then, they’ve had a chance to reflect on some of the most popular and respected bodies of work and creators of comedy. Now it’s their chance to try to make someone laugh.

“One of the things that is learned in Laugh Battle is that it is not enough to have a well-written joke – it comes down to delivery,” said Gunderson. “You can read a joke and figure out how easy it is to botch it or nail it based on your timing and your emphasis, right down to the syllable.”

Players take turns selecting and delivering pre-written jokes. Points are scored when their opponent cracks a smile; the player with the most points at the end of six rounds wins. Microsoft’s Face API, the AI technology from Azure Cognitive Services, makes the call on whether the joke elicited a laugh.

The AI service includes a deep neural network trained on a dataset of more than 100,000 labeled photos to recognize a range of universal facial expressions that are linked to eight emotions including happiness and sadness as well as anger, contempt, disgust, fear, neutral and surprise.

“Across cultures, people smile the same way, they get angry the same way, they show disgust the same way,” said Cornelia Carapcea, a principal program manager on the Cognitive Services team.

“If somebody is smiling or frowning, we can detect that and we give back a score for each emotion,” she explained. “It is not like we see a face and we say ‘happy,’ we see a face and say ‘oh, we think happy is maybe 60 percent.’ If the person is also doing more of a Mona Lisa smile we might have happy 60 percent and sad 40 percent.”

Another deep neural network in the Face API tracks facial landmarks such as the corners of the lips, which shift in tell-tale ways during laughter. The addition of the landmarks, Carapcea noted, provides extra insight.

Photograph of the front facade of the National Comedy Center, with two people walking hand in hand towards the front door.
The newly opened National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, uses technology throughout the museum to showcase the story, history, art and personalities of comedy. Photo by Jean Coleman.

Off the shelf intelligence

Gunderson and her staff at the National Comedy Center dreamed up the Laugh Battle in the early planning stages for the non-profit museum as way to give visitors an engaging and unique experience. The use of the Microsoft AI to power the experience clicked as a natural fit, Azizirad noted.

“We are bringing AI into culture, into society, in a way that makes it fun for everybody,” she said.

For Gunderson, the partnership helps her achieve the goal of giving visitors to the National Comedy Center an appreciation for the art of comedy and the importance of laughter for physical, emotional and mental well-being.

“I hope that the takeaway is a very vivid reminder of how much joy one can create in others and how important it is for all of us to laugh,” she said.

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John Roach writes about Microsoft research and innovation. Follow him on Twitter.