Northwestern prof defends federally funded humor grant

September 2, 2010 (EVANSTON, Ill.)

Professor Kristian Hammond says it's serious work. But some critics say using stimulus money for this type of research is no laughing matter.

Critics say the project is simply a waste of taxpayer money. But the man behind this next-generation software say those detractors, which include Senator John McCain, have never bothered to call and ask him what his work is all about.

In a building at Northwestern in Evanston, computer sciences professor Kristian Hammond is trying to make computers funny.

"Understanding what makes humor, what makes irony, what makes interesting juxtapositions, to understand what that means we can actually create it. We can create new material," said Hammond.

It's all heady, academic stuff, but Hammond is trying to give computers intuition.

The next-generation software looks at news stories and social media, and brings words together to form original lines of thought -- a joke, if you will.

The material generated so far is not exactly killer standup material, and Hammond's critics certainly aren't laughing.

The project has received more than $700,000 in federal stimulus money. Recently, Senator McCain singled out Hammond's project, calling it a "joke machine," one of many examples, he said, of wasteful spending.

"None of them really have any meaningful impact on creating jobs," McCain said.

"You can take anything and give money out and 'create jobs,' but this is not the type of thing that leads towards long-term robust growth," said U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, (R) western suburbs.

"We have nothing but anticipation that this will actually create more and more jobs," said Hammond.

Hammond received the funding after he applied to the National Science Foundation, beating out dozens of other applicants.

"The same technology could be used to write scientific papers," said Hammond.

In fact, the project also looks at voting behavior and migration patterns.

Hammond hopes it will all lead to a smarter internet.

"We're working on a technology we think in the long run will co-opt the engines," said Hammond. "So when you communicate with a search engine, rather than telling it what you want, it infers what you want."

That's all well and good, say critics, who argue it's not exactly a "shovel ready" project, as advertised by the White House.

The funding is spread over three years, and Hammond says he is using it to hire a small staff and buy equipment.

Hammond says he never thought the project would generate this kind of attention.

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