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.”
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.”