Why I’m using comedy to talk about AI

Ethics Research Fellow Mhairi Aitken discusses how stand-up comedy offers a vital way to engage new audiences with AI

Monday 26 Sep 2022

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is rarely out of the news. Whether it’s claims that an AI model has gained consciousness or that a robot has gone rogue, these high-profile stories raise important questions around the limitations and opportunities of AI.  

To maximise the value of AI across society, it is essential that we have a wider public discussion around the role and limits of AI. We need a range of approaches to facilitate these discussions, and in my research I use deliberative methods including citizens’ juries and public panels to have in-depth conversations about AI. But to spark interest and generate debate with new audiences, I think comedy offers a brilliant format. And when it comes to comedy there are few places better than the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the world’s largest arts festival – to give it a go.

The Fringe has something for everyone. Every year, you’ll find thousands of shows ranging from cabaret and circus performances to opera and theatre. But it is comedy that I’ve always been drawn to most. Stand-up comedy is a powerful medium through which to engage people with new ideas, challenge preconceptions and provoke debate. I think that’s what the best comedy does, and that’s why I believe comedy offers a really valuable tool when it comes to public engagement with AI. 

That’s what I aimed to do with my show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe called “Will Killer Robots Save Humanity?”. The show set out to reveal the truth behind sensational headlines about AI, and engage audiences in discussions about the good, the bad and the in-between of AI. By discussing the ways that AI has been misrepresented in cinema and the media, the show sought to redirect public concerns from far-fetched and unrealistic visions of what AI might achieve in the future, to consider how AI is already affecting our lives and transforming our society right now. 

My show ran as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (CoDI), which is a series of spoken word shows that have been part of the Fringe every year since 2012. CoDI challenges academics to get out of their comfort zones and discuss their research with the public. The shows are compèred by Susan Morrison, a professional stand-up comedian who expertly – and hilariously – blends informed discussion with irreverent humour. I have taken part in CoDI almost every year since its inception and have learned so much from doing so, both in terms of developing valuable public engagement skills but also through learning from the responses, comments and questions I have received from audience members.  

At least half the time in all CoDI shows is reserved for audience discussion, and these discussions are highly unpredictable, usually very lively and always fascinating. Performing at this year’s Fringe led to questions including: Are smart speakers spying on us? How can we make sure AI produces fair outcomes? Could AI ever develop consciousness? What should we be teaching children about AI? Can robots be good companions? And should there be an AI regulator? For me, the questions and comments raised by the CoDI audiences point to areas where we need further, wider public engagement and also to areas where there are important research questions to address.

Being involved with CoDI has ignited a passion for performing, and over the years I have increasingly dabbled in stand-up comedy. In 2017 I dared myself to take part in a Bright Club comedy show in Edinburgh. I have since performed at open mic nights and new act comedy nights. I enjoy the freedom to experiment with new ideas and the feeling of connection with the audience. It’s really interesting to see the reactions from audience members who aren’t expecting to hear about AI or data but become engaged with the subject matter. The relaxed atmosphere of a comedy club or festival creates a great space in which to have open discussions and exchanges of ideas. When people are laughing, they become much less guarded and that makes it the perfect opportunity to introduce new ideas or provoke reflections on new topics. 

With the Edinburgh Fringe now over for 2022, I am already thinking about ideas for next year’s show! It might not be possible to predict what AI stories will be in the headlines next summer, but I plan to be back at the Fringe to discuss them, demystify AI and debunk the myths of AI science fiction!

Watch Mhairi’s past shows and find out more about public engagement at the Turing.


Header image: Eddie Middleton