How to Teach a Robot a Joke

Pepper, a 3-foot-3 droid at SDSU’s James Silberrad Brown Center for Artificial Intelligence, amuses student researchers with programmed jokes and serves as a tool for teaching them about AI.

By Rebecca Nordquist

This story was published in the Fall 2023 Issue of SDSU Magazine.

A picture of Pepper
Photograph by Rachel Crawford

"Pepper, can you feel emotions?"

"Yes, of course! You can share anything with me! I feeeeel you..."

 This is one of Pepper’s go-to jokes. The student research assistants at SDSU’s James Silberrad Brown Center for Artificial Intelligence taught it to her.
Pepper doesn’t laugh at her own jokes, although her eye contact is spot on. She doesn’t have a personality, after all, says Karenina “Nika” Zaballa, lead analyst and center coordinator.
“We create the personality and use engineering prompts to teach her things like the timing and tone needed to tell a good joke,” Zaballa says.

As the center’s mascot since 2018 — second only to Kafka the labradoodle — Pepper is a tool used to teach students about programming and controlling artificial intelligence. The 3-foot-3 droid is one of thousands used in universities and organizations globally. And with the emergence of generative pretrained transformers, aka GPT, students can program Pepper with more advanced skills, reactions and conversational abilities.

However, even as Pepper progresses with her programming, she’ll only be able to pull from content that’s available online. She won’t be able to think independently and tell original jokes. Or will she … ?

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