What’s in a laugh?

Laugh Battle, an exhibit at the new National Comedy Center, invites visitors to go head-to-head telling jokes. The punchline? It uses artificial intelligence to detect when your opponent laughs.

Comedy is a vital part of America’s cultural fabric. From Charlie Chaplin to Dave Chapelle, the most celebrated comedic voices have used a time-honed creative process to elevate the act of making people laugh into an art form. The National Comedy Center, a new state-of-the-art museum in Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., is the first institution of its kind dedicated to telling this story of comedy in America. It features over 50 immersive exhibits that take visitors on an interactive journey through comedy history, from vaudeville to viral memes.

Exterior photo of two people walking into the National Comedy Center

One of the exhibits, Laugh Battle, showcases the latest in laugh technology 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. Their job is to score points by delivering the jokes well enough to make their opponent laugh. To keep competitors honest, Microsoft’s artificial intelligence technology detects when a player laughs or even cracks a smile.

“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,” 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.”

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. 

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. Nothing does that better than laughter.

- Mitra Azizirad, corporate vice president for AI marketing at Microsoft

Integrating cutting-edge technology like this is central to the National Comedy Center experience. They’ve developed personalization technology that allows visitors to create a humor profile so that the content they see is tailored to their individual tastes. The hope is that creating a dynamic, deeply individualized experience through technology will help visitors leave the museum with a greater sense of how comedy influences the way we think, live, and laugh.

The National Comedy Center opened on August 1, 2018, in Jamestown, N.Y.