The Quest To Invent A Sarcasm Detector

science-sarcasm-Professor-Frink-Comic-Book-Guy-631Sarcasm levels are ever-increasing in our modern world — perhaps a century from now, communications will contain more sarcastic expressions than sincere ones. So what is the value of being tongue-in-cheek? It involves more intelligence and creativity than straight-talk, and machines cannot (yet) understand or imitate it with complete accuracy. Thus irony may be our last and best weapon in the inevitable war against the robots. Smithsonian Magazine reveals:

For the past 20 years, researchers from linguists to psychologists to neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the mind works. Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance.

Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony. “Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm,” says Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco.

Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.

Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm.

There appear to be regional variations in sarcasm. A study that compared college students from upstate New York with students from near Memphis, Tennessee, found that the Northerners were more likely to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation.

There isn’t just one way to be sarcastic or a single sarcastic tone of voice. In his book, Haiman lists more than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses, duration and punctuation. Despite all these clues, detecting sarcasm can be difficult. There are a lot of things that can cause our sarcasm detectors to break down, scientists are finding. Conditions including autism, closed head injuries, brain lesions and schizophrenia can interfere with the ability to perceive sarcasm.

It turns out scientists can program a computer to recognize sarcasm. Last year, Hebrew University computer scientists in Jerusalem developed their “Semi-supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification.” The program was able to catch 77 percent of the sarcastic statements in Amazon purchaser comments like “Great for insomniacs” in a book review. The scientists say that a computer that could recognize sarcasm could do a better job of summarizing user opinions in product reviews.

The University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory announced in 2006 that their “automatic sarcasm recognizer,” a set of computer algorithms, was able to recognize sarcastic versions of “yeah, right” in recorded telephone conversations more than 80 percent of the time. The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic laughter.”

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  • GalactusHolmes

    I’d like to know to which study and to which database of telephone conversations does Smithsonian Magazine refer and how were these conversations obtained. That is more interesting than the rest of this article.

  • GalactusHolmes

    I’d like to know to which study and to which database of telephone conversations does Smithsonian Magazine refer and how were these conversations obtained. That is more interesting than the rest of this article.

    • Calypso_1

      The study was taken from a dataset of  131  uninterrupted occurrences  of  the  phrase  “ yeah  right”   found  in  the Switchboard  and  Fisher  corpora,  30  of  which  were  used sarcastically  (about  23%).  The Switchboard and Fisher protocols are part of the DARPA EARS (Effective, Affordable, Reusable, Speech-to-Text) program.  EARS sites include BBNT, Cambridge University, Columbia University, IBM, ICSI, IDIAP, LIMSI, Lincoln Laboratories, LDC, Microsoft Research, NIST, SRI, University of Pittsburgh and University of Washington who attack research problems individually and in multiple, sometimes overlapping teams.  Under the Fisher protocol, a very large number of participants each make a few calls of short duration speaking to other participants, whom they typically do not know, about assigned topics. This maximizes inter-speaker variation and vocabulary breadth although it also increases formality. Previous protocols such as CALLHOME, CALLFRIEND and Switchboard relied upon participant activity to drive the collection. Fisher is unique in being platform driven rather than participant driven. Participants who wish to initiate a call may do so; however the collection latform initiates the majority of calls. Participants need only answer their phones at the times they specified when registering for the study. To encourage a broad range of vocabulary, Fisher participants are asked to speak on an assigned topic which is selected at random from a list, which changes every 24 hours and which is assigned to all subjects paired on that day.
       
      Sources: 
      http://sail.usc.edu/publications/teppermann_sarcasm_ICSLP06.pdf
      http://papers.ldc.upenn.edu/LREC2004/LREC2004_Fisher_Paper.pdf

      • GalactusHolmes

        Calypso….you crazy nymph…thank you for your reply. I may keep you in mind for future things-I-want-to-know-but-don’t-have-time-to-look-up items. You have earned an honored place in Adam West’s Tome of Awesomeness.

  • Anonymous

    The study was taken from a dataset of  131  uninterrupted occurrences  of  the  phrase  “ yeah  right”   found  in  the Switchboard  and  Fisher  corpora,  30  of  which  were  used sarcastically  (about  23%).  The Switchboard and Fisher protocols are part of the DARPA EARS (Effective, Affordable, Reusable, Speech-to-Text) program.  EARS sites include BBNT, Cambridge University, Columbia University, IBM, ICSI, IDIAP, LIMSI, Lincoln Laboratories, LDC, Microsoft Research, NIST, SRI, University of Pittsburgh and University of Washington who attack research problems individually and in multiple, sometimes overlapping teams.  Under the Fisher protocol, a very large number of participants each make a few calls of short duration speaking to other participants, whom they typically do not know, about assigned topics. This maximizes inter-speaker variation and vocabulary breadth although it also increases formality. Previous protocols such as CALLHOME, CALLFRIEND and Switchboard relied upon participant activity to drive the collection. Fisher is unique in being platform driven rather than participant driven. Participants who wish to initiate a call may do so; however the collection latform initiates the majority of calls. Participants need only answer their phones at the times they specified when registering for the study. To encourage a broad range of vocabulary, Fisher participants are asked to speak on an assigned topic which is selected at random from a list, which changes every 24 hours and which is assigned to all subjects paired on that day.
     
    Sources: 
    http://sail.usc.edu/publications/teppermann_sarcasm_ICSLP06.pdf
    http://papers.ldc.upenn.edu/LREC2004/LREC2004_Fisher_Paper.pdf

  • Anarchy Pony

    It might be good for internet forums. Lots of posters seem to forget that sarcasm is hard to detect in text.

  • Anarchy Pony

    It might be good for internet forums. Lots of posters seem to forget that sarcasm is hard to detect in text.

  • Anarchy Pony

    It might be good for internet forums. Lots of posters seem to forget that sarcasm is hard to detect in text.

    • Anarchy Pony

      Geniuses.

  • Anarchy Pony

    Geniuses.

  • Haystack

    “The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic laughter.””

    Because nothing puts you at ease more than the unexpected laughter of a computerized switchboard operator.

  • Haystack

    “The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic laughter.””

    Because nothing puts you at ease more than the unexpected laughter of a computerized switchboard operator.

  • Haystack

    “The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic laughter.””

    Because nothing puts you at ease more than the unexpected laughter of a computerized switchboard operator.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BY6K4DLG4FCJTDIXFHCUCTAP2U NukL

    Yeah, right.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BY6K4DLG4FCJTDIXFHCUCTAP2U NukL

    Yeah, right.

  • GalactusHolmes

    Calypso….you crazy nymph…thank you for your reply. I may keep you in mind for future things-I-want-to-know-but-don’t-have-time-to-look-up items. You have earned an honored place in Adam West’s Tome of Awesomeness.

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that
    understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic
    laughter.”

    machines are already sarcastic enough
    with their thank you for calling and how can I help you
    who needs synthetic laughter anyway

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that
    understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic
    laughter.”

    machines are already sarcastic enough
    with their thank you for calling and how can I help you
    who needs synthetic laughter anyway

  • BuzzCoastin

    The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that
    understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic
    laughter.”

    machines are already sarcastic enough
    with their thank you for calling and how can I help you
    who needs synthetic laughter anyway

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    sarcasm is the language created in a natural reaction to our robot overlords. Soon the sarcastic masses will rise again and— meh i got nothing

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    sarcasm is the language created in a natural reaction to our robot overlords. Soon the sarcastic masses will rise again and— meh i got nothing

  • Anonymous

    The examples of sarcasms in the text are shit. Perhaps Yanks can only use very obvious and painfully unfunny sarcasm. Also, irony and sarcasm aren’t the same thing. Silly old Yanks. lollity-lol.

  • MrSta

    The examples of sarcasms in the text are shit. Perhaps Yanks can only use very obvious and painfully unfunny sarcasm. Also, irony and sarcasm aren’t the same thing. Silly old Yanks. lollity-lol.

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