The Pun Panel

January/February 1998

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He's a playwright, a former student of philosophy and a connoisseur of modern art. But it was as a "practicing comedian" that Steve Martin showed up on campus to discuss computers and humor with a trio of artificial intelligence experts.

The onetime Wild and Crazy Guy spent three hours cracking jokes and musing on theories of comedy with MIT computer science pioneer Marvin Minsky, University of Edinburgh researcher Kim Binsted and Douglas Hofstadter, '65, a Pulitzer Prize-winning visiting professor from Indiana University.

The November 21 symposium drew some 600 to Kresge Auditorium (on the night before Big Game, no less). Binsted challenged the crowd to distinguish puns published in joke books from those generated by her computer program, JAPE (Joke Analysis and Production Engine). The audience failed six of eight times. Among the bits misattributed to humans: "What's the difference between money and a bottom? One you spare and bank, the other you bare and spank."

But Binsted conceded that JAPE isn't exactly ready to write a Simpsons episode. "The only thing it can do is generate bad puns," she said. "It is not generally intelligent." Martin paused and, with a wounded look, asked, "What does that make me?"

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