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Startup Spotlight: Can a machine learn to laugh? Botnik crosses a comedian with AI to find out

Jamie Brew and Elle O’Brien, the Seattle-based half of Botnik. Bob Mankoff and Joseph Parker are based in New York and Florida, respectively. (Botnik Photo)

If the game Cards Against Humanity and those refrigerator poetry magnets had a digital baby bestowed with machine learning, it would look something like Botnik. This Seattle-based startup is actually the comedic offspring of Jamie Brew, previously a head writer for ClickHole, a satirical website connected to The Onion, and Bob Mankoff, cartoon and humor editor of Esquire and former cartoon editor of The New Yorker.

“Bob and I started Botnik after a series of long phone calls converging on the idea that comedy writing isn’t a problem that an algorithm can solve,” Brew said. “We didn’t really care for fully automatic creativity (such as Google DeepMind’s attempt to win The New Yorker Caption Contest) and were far more interested in human-machine collaboration.”

Botnik builds a “predictive keyboard” of words taken from various sources — beauty ads, nature shows, famous poets, dialogue from “Seinfeld” episodes and even combinations of sources, including the unlikely triumvirate that is Beowulf/Maya Angelou/forklift manual. Botnik users can enter their own source to create a keyboard.

The program analyzes the sentences in the source to build a model of which words are likely to follow each other. Then a user calls up a keyboard and starts creating her or his own computer-assisted quips. As each word is selected, the Botnik app churns out 18 choices for the next word based on the highest probability of continuing the sequence.

The results are almost universally quirky, and they’re often funny and clever. Last month, Brew and friends used the app to write a parody episode of “Seinfeld” and the script went viral on Twitter.

Botnik users can test the tool and their comedic chops through writing jams. Past topics include Buzzfeed quizzes, which begat, “Can You Match These Disney Princess Outfits To The Mental Illnesses They Reveal?” and Halloween safety tips, one answer being: “The bible says that children love when we dress them like pumpkins and eat their regular clothes.”

A spoof on Wired reviews inspired some gems, including, “If you asked 1,000 people what innovation is, the seventh would say ‘jeans with bluetooth’” and “The iPhone 8’s 2½-gallon bucket is a wonderful addition. It holds a lot of caramel.”

“We want to show the world an emerging kind of machine-human creative collaboration that brings us great joy,” Brew said, “and that we believe can do the same for billions of others.”

Botnik, which launched last year, was one of nine early-stage startups that recently participated in the first-ever Alexa Accelerator. The budding companies spent three months building their B2C and B2B technologies that incorporate Alexa, Amazon’s popular artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered voice platform.

The team plans in the future to sell ads and offer modular in-app purchases and a “freemium” versioning of the app.

We caught up with Brew for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Botnik is a community where people use computational language tools to remix and transform existing content into new jokes, stories, screenplays and more.”

Inspiration hit us when: “Google DeepMind tried and failed to enter The New Yorker Caption Contest, and Bob saw that the computer comedy world was desolate and empty. Then, after reading an interview where Bob mentioned Botnik, Rodrigo Prudencio of Amazon reached out and invited us to apply for this summer’s Alexa Accelerator.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Angels. We keep seeing their faces in all our pieces of toast.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our community of coders, comedy writers and ordinary citizens working together to explore the wilds of human-machine collaboration.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Finding an amazing mentor in Jean Paoli, an ex-Microsoft leader and one of the inventors of XML.”

One of the quips created by Botnik’s users, shared by Brew at the Alexa Accelerator. (GeekWire File Photo)

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Poorly framing our product in our first round of user testing. We gave people the predictive keyboard loaded with stuff like Yelp reviews and expected them to figure out on their own that this tool would help them write an absurd parody of Yelp reviews. This did not work.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Gates, for a triumphant exit.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “Jamie repeatedly losing to Bob at ping pong.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “A deep love for — and suspicion of — both machines and people.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Work with people you can talk with for hours. And invest in Botnik.”

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Alphabet stock on the rise as Google parent beats Wall Street expectations with $27.7B in revenue

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. (Flickr Photo / Maurizio Pesce)

Shares in Google parent company Alphabet are up after the company exceeded Wall Street expectations in the third quarter.

Alphabet posted earnings of $9.57 per share on $27.7 billion in revenue in the third quarter. Analyst surveyed in advance by Yahoo Finance expected Alphabet to make $8.33 per share on revenue of $27.2 billion.

“We had a terrific quarter, with revenues up 24% year on year, reflecting strength across Google and Other Bets,” Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet said in a statement. “Our momentum is a result of investments over many years in fantastic people, products and partnerships.”

Alphabet shares are up 3 percent in after-hours trading, pushing the stock above $1,000.

The Google business (search, ads, maps, apps, cloud, Play, YouTube, Android, virtual reality, etc.) was responsible for operating profits of $8.7 billion, up from $6.7 billion last year, on $27.5 billion in revenue, up from $22.2 billion a year ago. Advertising continues to be a cash cow for Alphabet, with $24 billion in revenue, up from $19.8 billion at this time last year.

Google’s “Other Bets” division, which includes some of the company’s riskier projects, took a $812 million loss on $302 million in revenue. Those figures are an improvement on last year, when Other Bets took a loss of $861 million on $197 million in revenue.

It’s been a busy quarter for Google. In September, the company announced it signed a $1.1 billion “cooperation agreement” with HTC, the Taiwan-based consumer electronics company, as it looks to amp up its smartphone business. The deal sends “certain” HTC employees to work at Google and gives the search giant a non-exclusive license for HTC intellectual property. Google described the transaction as “continuing our big bet on hardware.”

The company also announced a new slate of smart speakers powered by the Google Assistant, as well as the next generation of its Pixel smartphone. Google this week released the $49 Google Home Mini, the company’s answer to the Amazon Echo Dot, and in December the $399 Google Home Max will hit the streets.

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H. Alan Scott Grew Up Gay and Mormon in the Midwest. Now He’s About to Become Bar Mitzvah, and He Needs Your Help.

As Jews, we’re obligated to love all other Jews. There’s no rule, however, about loving some Jews more than others. And as far as lovable Jews go, the Scroll pledges its undying affection to H. Alan Scott.

If you listen to our podcast, Unorthodox (and really, why wouldn’t you?), you’re already a fan of H. Alan’s. If not, you’ll soon be: Growing up Mormon and gay in the Midwest, he was the consummate outsider. He moved to Los Angeles, became a comedian and a writer and the host of the world’s greatest Golden Girls podcast, but something was amiss. A bout with cancer led him on a long spiritual journey. And that journey led him to the faith he always felt was his: Judaism.

Continue reading “H. Alan Scott Grew Up Gay and Mormon in the Midwest. Now He’s About to Become Bar Mitzvah, and He Needs Your Help.” at…

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In New Book, Rutgers Professor Accuses Israel of Maiming Palestinians for Profit

Next month, Duke University Press will publish The Right to Maim, a new book from Rutgers University professor Jasbir K. Puar. A passionate advocate of BDS who had previously accused Israel of harvesting the organs of Palestinians and who threatened to sue anyone who published her talk at Vassar earlier this year, Puar, to say the least, is a controversial figure. But books, even ones written by academics, deserve to be taken on their own merit. And, on its own merit, Puar’s book is an intellectual and moral hoax, a bit of sizzling sophistry designed to stir the faithful into a frenzy of outrage divorced of any and all observable reality.

The section of the book that deals with Israel makes the following claim: The Jewish state’s efforts to refrain from killing innocent Palestinians—everything from the IDF’s cautious open-fire protocols to the “roof knock” policy of warning civilians prior to bombing attacks—are actually a devious scheme to strengthen the stranglehold Israel’s colonialist regime has on its Palestinian subjects.

Continue reading “In New Book, Rutgers Professor Accuses Israel of Maiming Palestinians for Profit” at…

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An Israeli Won Gold in Judo in Abu Dhabi. They Refused to Play His National Anthem—So He Sang It Himself.

Today, Israeli Tal Flicker won Gold in Judo at the Grand Slam competition in Abu Dhabi. In contravention of the rules and explicit directives of the International Judo Federation, Flicker and all other Israeli athletes in the tournament were forbidden to compete under the Israeli flag. Thus, when Flicker ascended the winners podium, not only was his flag not displayed, but the organizers refused to play the Israeli national anthem, substituting instead the anthem of the International Judo Federation.

And so Flicker quietly sang the Israeli anthem, HaTikvah, himself.

Continue reading “An Israeli Won Gold in Judo in Abu Dhabi. They Refused to Play His National Anthem—So He Sang It Himself.” at…

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Today on Jewcy: Nazi-hunting video game protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz is officially an M.O.T.

Like a vaguely exotic Golden Age film star, rumors have been circulating for years if William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz is secretly Jewish. Of course, Blazkowicz isn’t an actor, or even a real person; he’s the Nazi-fighting star of the hit video game franchise Wolfenstein, first appearing on screen twenty five years ago. And now, we finally have our answer.

Click here to read the full post on Jewcy.

Continue reading “Today on Jewcy: Nazi-hunting video game protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz is officially an M.O.T.” at…

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Soviet Week: One Hundred Years of Insanity

The centennial we are observing this month—the solemn anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution—is the anniversary of a logical absurdity and its consequences. The Bolshevik takeover of Russia came about as a matter of chance; and was interpreted as a matter of destiny. The event was predicted by no one at all; and rested its prestige on a reputation for having fulfilled the well-known predictions of Karl Marx. The absurdity of those contradictions constituted the Bolshevik mystique. And, in the greatest absurdity of all, the appeal of that mystique turned out to be spectacularly vast.

The revolution that overthrew the czar earlier in the year, in February 1917, was entirely different. In Russia, everyone except the czar himself and his courtiers and the circles of black reaction knew that czarism, the social system, was shaky in the extreme, and was bound to collapse. Everyone recognized the strength and popularity of the main opposition parties, the Social Democrats (or Mensheviks) and the peasant Social Revolutionaries. Everyone, the czar and his circle excepted, therefore predicted the February Revolution. It duly occurred, and no one was astonished. The czar abdicated. The big opposition parties assumed power. The opposition parties began the process that, in the expectation of a great many participants and observers, was going to bring Russia in a Western European direction, secular, parliamentary, and vaguely liberal. And no one anticipated that a tiny dictatorial faction of the revolutionary left was going to overthrow the democratic parties and institute an exceptionally terrible despotism of a sort that had never existed in the past—something truly novel. Lenin himself did not expect such a development. Until the spring of 1917, Lenin never imagined that a Bolshevik seizure of power would be possible. Nor did he think it was advisable, nor did any of his comrades.

Continue reading “Soviet Week: One Hundred Years of Insanity” at…

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South Alabama kicker hits post 3 times for 46-yard FG

College kickers need all the help they can get to make deep field goals. South Alabama Jaguars kicker Gavin Patterson, though, probably wasn’t expecting to receive quite so much assistance on this 46-yard field goal against the Georgia State Panthers on Thursday night.

Upright, crossbar, crossbar – just like he planned it. South Alabama could use similarly fortuitous bounces for the game’s remainder. The Jaguars trail Georgia State 21-6 midway through the fourth quarter.

The post South Alabama kicker hits post 3 times for 46-yard FG appeared first on FanRag Sports.

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Oregon State nearly scores impressive fat guy TD

Oregon State offensive lineman Fred Lauina lines up for a play during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

When a team is the decided underdog, there can be a tendency to throw caution to the wind and try some trick plays in an attempt to catch the other team off guard. That’s exactly what Oregon State attempted to do during the second quarter of its game against No. 20 Stanford.

Oregon State called for a throwback pass to 6-foot-4, 315-pound Fred Lauina, who nearly reached the line to gain for the first down before being knocked out of bounds. Since the pass was backwards it goes down as a rushing attempt in the official scorebook, with Lauina gaining 8 yards on the play.

Oregon State would complete the drive with a Darell Garretson 3-yard touchdown run to take a 7-3 lead on the Cardinal, who are without star running back Bryce Love.

The post Oregon State nearly scores impressive fat guy TD appeared first on FanRag Sports.

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Curious Museum Guest Gets an Unexpected Suprise When He Touches the Glass of a Virtual Shark Tank

While visiting the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., a curious guest approached the touch activated Virtual Shark Tank and reached out to touch the glass, repeating the movement over and again. The lack of immediate results left the patron completely unprepared for what came next, when a giant (simulated) shark appeared out of nowhere and proceeded to break the virtual glass of the virtual tank. The unsuspecting guest was so surprised that he fell onto the floor in shock.

This type of reaction is fairly common by design.

A demonstration of the Virtual Shark Tank in action.

via Tastefully Offensive

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