You’d think the reasons for something being funny were beyond the reach of science – but Google’s brain-box researchers have managed to come up with a formula for working out which YouTube video clips are the funniest.
The Google researcher behind the project is quoted saying:
‘If a user uses an “loooooool” vs an “loool”, does it mean they were more amused? We designed features to quantify the degree of emphasis on words associated with amusement in viewer comments.’
Other factors taken into account are tags, descriptions, and ‘whether audible laughter can be heard in the background‘. Ultimately, the algorithm gives a ranking of the funniest videos (with No No No No Cat on top, since you asked).
Now I usually have high respect for all things Google, but this ‘research’ at first appeared to be a total piece of junk. Of course, it turned out that it is just the way it is reported by the Daily Mail (cited above), New Scientist and countless other more or less reputable outlets.
Google’s new algorithm does not provide a normative ranking of the funniest videos ever based on some objective criteria; it is a predictive score about the video’s comedic potential. Google trained the algorithm on a bunch of videos (it’s unclear from the original source what the external ‘fun’ measure used for the training part was) in order to inductively extract features associated with the video being funny. Based on these features, the program can then score any possible video. But these scores are not normative measures, they are predictions. So No No No No Cat is not the funniest video ever [well, it might be, it's pretty hilarious actually], it is Google’s safest bet that the video would be considered funny.
The story is worth mentioning not only because it exposes yet another case of gross misinterpretation of a scientific project in the news, but because it nicely illustrates the differences between measurement, prediction, and explanation. The newspapers have taken Google’s project to be an exercise in measurement. As explained above, the goal is actually predictive in nature. But even if the algorithm has 100% success rate in identifying potentially funny videos, that would still not count as an explanation of what makes a video funny. Just think about it – would a boring video become funny if we just put funny tags, background laughter, and plenty of loools in the comments? Not really. In that respect Brent Coker’s approach, which I mentioned in a previous post, has real explanatory potential (although I doubt whether it has any explanatory power).
So, no need to panic, the formula for something being funny is as distant as ever.
P.S. In an ironic turn of events, now that No No No No Cat has gone viral, Google would never know whether the algorithm was very good, or just everyone wanted to see the video Google declared the funnies ever. Ah, the joys of social science research!