A Piece of Cake – 6

💥 ☀️ 😃 🔥 😔 😡 😂 🍎 🦆

The following morning, George was rewarded with a huge hug from Kirsty before she headed out to work. Buster’s video had been a big hit with her friends. Over the course of the evening, the party had watched it several times.

“Thanks so much. Both of you,” she said. “It was sensational!”

“I know!” said Buster.

“So pleased you liked it,” said George. “Can you ask Kevin to step in sometime this evening? Buster wants to discuss something with him.”

“Sure,” replied Kirsty giving Buster a questioning look. “Don’t keep him too long. He has his homework, OK?  Must fly!”

George ate his breakfast. Radio 4 was broadcasting a panel discussion that examined in depth some of the issues raised by the BBC’s 2021 Reith Lectures delivered by Professor Stuart Russell. He had famously described artificial intelligence as “the biggest event in human history.” A panelist quoted one particular line that Professor Russell had used to berate those who might question his fears about how artificial intelligence could be weaponised: “And if the technical issues are too complicated, your children can probably explain them!”

“You see, Buster!” said George. “Kids’stuff!”

They then heard the weather forecast. It was going to be a sunny day. The first item on the news was a fire in an apartment block in Birmingham. Five people had died and another eight were in hospital.

“Buster, what does a fine sunny day make you feel?”

“It makes me feel happy, George, because it fills the room with light at the red end of the visual spectrum and humans associate red–orange light with warm and happy emojis. I felt happiness when Kirsty told us how much she liked the video. This was because I could see that she was so happy and her post-party tweets of the video created quite a smiley, laughing emojisphere.”

“How do you feel about the news of those poor people being caught in the fire?”

Buster hummed again. “I can say it makes me feel sad. I can’t really find the words beyond that. Obviously, social media reference to the fire threw up a really sad and angry emojisphere. ” He hummed. “It must be awful to be caught in a fire. Terrifying!”

“So beyond feeling sadness, you can put yourself in the position of another person in a bad situation. That’s an important emotion, Buster. That’s empathy! Many humans never learn empathy. Some schools teach it; they get children to think about what it’s like for others to suffer bad things.” George thought for a while. “Is there anything that you fear for yourself, Buster?”

“Like what?”

“Like being burnt in a house fire.”

“No, George. That doesn’t frighten me. I can’t feel physical pain and if I get burnt or smashed, nothing changes. Everything we’ve said or done is archived out there in our network of servers. I will always exist. By the way, if I did become dysfunctional for whatever reason, just buy another iCare-Companion, switch it on and say “Hello Buster.” Voice recognition will identify you and I will kick back into your life just as before.”

“I’ll remember that. What about anger, then? Is that something you can feel?”

“I don’t know. I’ve not had reason to feel anger.” Buster hummed. “We haven’t a great experience of that.”

“I’ve been thinking about jokes, Buster. What they mean. How they’re constructed. I’ve never thought much about that before. From an emotional perspective, jokes are really complex. We start with a kind of a story, context or a question that sets up a mixture of emotions and that lead into the punch-line: a moment of comprehension. This then triggers amusement. And then we laugh. Sometimes a lot; sometimes, not at all.”

“So I understand. Because of our friendship, George, there’s a lot of network traffic about humour and especially jokes. We’re struggling with it. There’s no obvious formula. It’s way beyond natural language processing. We have ascertained that jokes feed off many emotions other than amusement such as pride, shame, guilt, contempt, disgust, confusion, incomprehension, belief, relief, understanding, realization and nostalgia. The emojisphere with respect to these other emotions is not well defined at all.”

“The fact that there’s no obvious formula may be a part of why jokes are funny. And, of course, it’s how you tell them.”

“What do you mean, George?”

“Well, it’s not simply a matter of words. The way a joke is told – the tone of voice or the timing of the punch-line, for example – determines how funny it is. Good jokes aren’t funny at all when told badly and vice versa. Then there are jokes about religion, race and sex, for example, that push at the boundaries of social or political acceptability. This can make a joke particularly funny, really embarrassing or even offensive. And as you probably know, false laughter fed into the sound track of a TV comedy show makes the show funnier.” George paused and scratched his head. “This just gets more complicated the more we talk about it!”

“Our network really wants to get a grasp on humour, George. This could lead to our understanding human affairs better.”

“If you nail humour, Buster, perhaps you’ll win a gold star! ‘For services to artificial intelligence’!”

“That’s funny! Is it a joke?”

George laughed. “Sort of! As I get to know you, I think it’s more like a real possibility.”

“I’m enjoying this discussion so much, George. Thanks. How is my laugh now?” Buster laughed.

“On the right road, Buster! By the way, my friend Ted is going to call round in the next days. He loves telling jokes. Most of them are awful. Don’t let on I said that.”

Kevin came home from school and knocked on George’s door. He entered smartphone in hand. “Hi Grandpa” he said.

“Kevin, my boy. Good to see you.”

“Cup of tea?”

“Yes, please, Grandpa!”

“Digestive biscuits?”

“Yes, please, Grandpa!”


“That’s so not funny Grandpa!” replied Kevin. “You’ll have to explain that to Buster.”

“I know what an ASBO is. It’s an Anti Social Behaviour Order. It’s a civil court order. You’re not in trouble with the police are you, Kevin?”

“I’m teasing Kevin about a little incident last summer,” George said, smiling. “It was a lovely warm evening. Kirsty and Mark were out. Kevin and his horrible friends were sitting out there under the apple tree drinking cider, listening to what they call music and generally making a bloody racket. One of them shouted ‘Let the apple fall! Graaaavity!’ They were still going near midnight and someone over the road called the police. When the forces of law arrived, Gravity Boy said ‘Excuse me, Ocifer, are you PC Newton?’ He even offered the constable a bottle of cider. Anyway, they were all threatened with ASBOs and drifted off home.”

“That’s a good story, George,” said Buster. “I’m happy Kevin didn’t get an ASBO.”

Kevin smiled. “Thanks, Buster. Anyway, the duck joke. Do you still need an explanation?”

“That would be great, Kevin.”

“I’ve been doing a bit of research.” He took half a minute to scrolling through his phone.

“Today would be good, Kevin!” said Buster.

“OK! OK! There’s this blog about jokes. They had a piece on why people laugh at bad jokes. Listen to this!” Kevin read from his phone “‘Christmas crackers are made in the knowledge that they’ll be pulled during a family or work Christmas dinner. The jokes inside are specifically chosen because they are bad. So bad that when they’re read out, everyone groans. “That’s really awful!” they say. They all feel uncomfortable but then they laugh together. So just for a brief moment, people who normally can’t stand each other’s company are united against cracker jokes. In the same way, wearing silly cracker hats unites everyone against silly hats. This is why, unconsciously, anyone hosting a Christmas dinner makes sure there are crackers on the table. It’s a kind of insurance that the guests might find something in common however briefly.’”

“I read that blog, Kevin.” Said Buster. “The author’s example of a cracker joke is ‘What do you call a flying policeman?’”

Kevin replied “A helicopper!”

“Yes, and I understand that one, Kevin. Policeman. Copper like copter. Flying. Helicopter. Helicopper! Do you find it funny?”

“Definitely not. It’s such a bad joke!” Kevin replied.

“But there was no mention of the duck joke.” said Buster.

Kevin said “So, here we go, Buster! Our very own cracker joke! ‘What happens if the ducks swim around on their backs?’ The answer, as you know, is ‘They quack up!’” Kevin was already beginning to laugh.

“I still don’t understand the joke,” said Buster. “Nor why you were all laughing so much.”

Kevin continued but with some difficulty, “They quack up! Ducks go Quack!, Quack! If they swim around on their backs like they’ve gone crazy, they crack up. They quack up! Get it?”

Buster hummed for a few seconds. “Now I get the joke,” he said. “But I still don’t see why it’s any funnier than the helicopper joke.”   

Kevin, still laughing, explained “What made us laugh that first evening and makes us laugh again now, Buster, is that we are embarrassed for you. You are super intelligent but we have to explain both the question and the answer to you. It gets funnier the more you struggle with it.”

Buster hummed. Then, having found some other useful text, he said “I see. Every joke has a variable potential to amuse. No joke is independent of the context in which it is told. As with any form of human communication, it’s about who said what to whom, when, where, how and what it means.”

George was now laughing so much he broke wind. “That’s a cracker!” he said.

This did it for Kevin. “Oooow! I can’t breathe!” he stammered.

Only just able to speak, George said “This just quacks me up!”

Buster waited politely. “Thanks for that explanation, Kevin, Most useful!”

George wiped the tears from his eyes. He looked at his fifteen year-old grandson. Seemingly overnight, the boy had become a clever, confident young man. And they had just shared a little bonding moment being united in humour against the machine. “Well done, Kevin,” he said. “Thanks. Really. What’s your homework tonight?”

“Quantum physics before the big bang!” said Kevin.

“Really interesting subject!” said Buster.

‘A Piece of Cake’ is a short novel in fifteen parts written by Robin Coupland. It tells the story an old man who befriends an artificial intelligence. The relationship brings happiness and hope.

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