Apple may have put the voice assistant Siri in our pockets, but Amazon made Alexa part of the home — and soon to be part of basically every gadget you’ll ever own, from alarm clocks to cars to refrigerators. But learning to converse with AI assistants in the household doesn’t feel all that natural, which is why engineers have been working so hard to build personalities into these robots. And part of a good personality, as most human beings would agree, is a good sense of humor.
Recently, Amazon’s been pushing this humor thing pretty aggressively. If you’re an Echo user, you might notice that Amazon sends you periodic emails about things you can ask Alexa to do, especially around the holidays. Almost always, Amazon will recommend that you ask Alexa for a joke.
On St. Patrick’s Day, for example:
Or Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day:
Have you recently asked Alexa for a joke? They’re on par with what you’d find on the back of a Laffy Taffy wrapper. At best, they’re designed to entertain a child — the same demographic Laffy Taffies mainly cater to. At worst, the jokes are told in a forced, semi-robotic voice that could use a lesson or two in comedic timing.
Google’s trying, too. Last fall, The Wall Street Journal reported that the company had employed writers from satirical site The Onion and animation studio Pixar to craft some funny into the Home.
Don’t get me wrong: Alexa, Google Home, Siri, and Cortana are funny, but their humor doesn’t come from jokes — it stems from playful little quips, often made when asking the assistants about themselves. What color are your eyes? Can you sing? What’s your favorite food? Do you smoke? You know, things a person might ask someone when trying to interact and get to know them. I even let out of long awww to Google Home’s answers to what she thinks of Amazon’s Alexa. (“I like her blue light, and she has a nice name,” “I’m not as tall, but that’s okay.”) And let’s not forget what happened after we asked Alexa, “Who poop?”
If Amazon wants us to interact with Alexa in our daily lives, then giving it a bit of personality and humor is the way to go. But funny can’t be forced and it can’t be an item on a menu. Like humans, AI personalities are best when infused with a healthy sense of humor. There’s no need to dumb them down with knock-knock jokes.