19 August 2006 Latest News
Laughter is the best therapy

Dr Waller.

WHEN YOU can’t talk and have difficulty walking due to severe cerebral palsy, there’s not a lot to laugh about.

But disabled children are discovering the pleasure of appalling jokes, thanks to the efforts of Dundee University computer experts and their colleagues elsewhere.

The children, whose disabilities leave them speechless, have been given “a language playground” that has them cracking up while cracking jokes.

Researchers at Dundee University’s school of computing, working with colleagues in the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, have developed sophisticated software that uses a massive database of words and their synonyms to create a joke machine.

Dundee University researcher Dr Annalu Waller explained that the machine makes up its own puns. The jokes are not pre- programmed by the researchers but result from topic words chosen by the child operating the system that gives a voice output, Stephen Hawking style.

When they discover a joke they like they can save it in the system and reproduce it again and again at the touch of a screen.

“The computer itself is making up the jokes and some of them are terrible!” said Dr Waller.

Her own “favourite” produced by the joke machine is “What do you call a spicy missile?” “A hot shot.”

She said that children playing with words often find things hilarious that fail to amuse adults.

Learning what makes something funny is part of a child’s development, an opportunity that non-speaking disabled children are often denied.

The chance to play with the system has opened up a whole new world of laughter for non-speaking children and gives them the opportunity to prompt laughter in their friends and family by “telling” a joke.

“You can just see their whole faces light up,” said Dr Waller. “They are controlling the conversation. It is just absolutely brilliant. We have developed a language playground for children who cannot speak.”

Next week teachers and therapists from all over the UK who work with disabled children will attend a workshop in Dundee University where the technology will be on show and telling jokes.

The team hopes to get further funding when current funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council runs out later this year.

All copyright D C Thomson & Co Ltd., 2006
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