What’s in a laugh?

Laugh Battle, at the new National Comedy Center, uses artificial intelligence to detect when your opponent laughs. We invited some of our favorite comics to test it out.

Located in Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., the National Comedy Center is a state-of-the-art museum and the first institution of its kind dedicated to telling the story of American comedy as an art form. It features over 50 immersive exhibits that take visitors on an interactive journey through comedy history, from vaudeville to viral memes.

One of the exhibits, Laugh Battle, showcases the latest in high-laughs high-tech by using artificial intelligence to help visitors experience firsthand what it takes to make an audience laugh. The premise is simple: two challengers sit at opposing screens, going back and forth over six rounds telling pre-written jokes. They score points by making their opponent laugh. To keep competitors honest, Microsoft’s artificial intelligence technology detects when a player laughs or even cracks a smile.

Recently, Microsoft tested the limits of Laugh Battle by having professional comedians go head-to-head in a Laugh Battle Royale. Facing off were Seth Herzog, a staple of the New York City comedy scene and a regular on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; Nick Thune, the LA-based mastermind behind the comedy special Folk Hero; Janelle James, who you can catch on Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup; Dave Hill, a comedian, writer, and actor with a penchant for heavy metal known for his work on Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt; Jordan Carlos, a comic, writer, and actor who also appeared on The Colbert Report; and Corinne Fisher, half of the duo behind the popular feminist comedy podcast Guys We F****d.

While the comedians had placed early bets on Nick Thune’s epic deadpan (and unruly beard), he soon found his match in Janelle James and her stone-cold delivery.

“That AI won’t pick up any laughs from me,” Janelle promised. “They don’t call me cold-blooded for nothin’!”

After several more side-splitting rounds, in the end it came down to Dave versus Nick—and one final joke: “Why couldn’t the baker get a date? Because he was always asking for dough.”

It was the joke that took down Dave in a blaze of laughter, making Nick the Laugh Battle Royale champ.

So, how does it work? The exhibit uses Azure Cognitive Services and Microsoft Face API, which can detect emotions like happiness and surprise, to focus on facial expressions in images. In the case of Laugh Battle, it can determine if a face onscreen is laughing or smiling—which means to block their opponent from winning, players need to have a decent poker face up their sleeves. But more broadly, it also has the ability to detect anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, or a neutral expression. And it can do this with accuracy and consistency because the way our faces communicate these emotions are understood universally across cultures.

“One of the things that I learned in Laugh Battle is that it is not enough to have a well-written joke—it comes down to delivery,” says Journey Gunderson, executive director of the museum. “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.”

Visit the National Comedy Center to try Laugh Battle for yourself.