Laugh Tracks and Libraries

Hayden Library is part of an interactive art installation powered by AI

Still photos courtesy of metaLAB (at) Harvard

For one weekend last November, visitors to Hayden Library found a novel distraction from their p-sets and research: they could watch an impromptu sitcom playing out in real time across town. Hosted at the Cambridge Public Library, The Laughing Room was an artificially intelligent room, designed to look like a sitcom set and programmed to play an audio laugh track whenever people in the room said something that its algorithm deemed funny. The Control Room, a companion installation located in Hayden Library, displayed a live stream of the action at the CPL while another monitor showed the algorithm at work.

The installations, on view November 16–18, were the work of Jonny Sun and collaborators Hannah Davis and Christopher Sun. Jonny Sun is an author and illustrator, PhD candidate in urban studies and planning, affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and creative researcher at the metaLAB at Harvard. The Laughing Room and The Control Room were presented as part of ARTificial Intelligence, an ongoing program led by Associate Professor of Literature Stephanie Frampton that fosters public dialogue about the emerging ethical and social implications of artificial intelligence (AI) through art and design.

“Cambridge is the birthplace of artificial intelligence, and this installation gives us an opportunity to think about the new roles that AI is playing in our lives every day,” said Frampton. “It was important to us to set the installations in the Cambridge Public Library and MIT Libraries, where they could spark an open conversation at the intersections of art and science.”

“I wanted the installation to resemble a sitcom set from the 1980s—a private, familial space,” said Sun during an artists’ talk event held at Hayden Library November 17. “I wanted to explore how AI is changing our conception of private space, with things like the Amazon Echo or Google Home, where you’re aware of this third party listening.” Having the companion installation in Hayden—where people were actually tuning in—continued the sitcom metaphor.

Participants found the experience equal parts creepy and joyful. The AI-powered laugh track, trained on a dataset of stand-up comedy routines, prompted genuine laughter from some; others were unsettled by its unpredictable patterns. Visitors and project collaborators alike were impressed with how the phony living room setting fostered real connections between strangers.

“This has been an extraordinary collaboration,” said Frampton. “It has shown us how much interest there is in this kind of programming and how much energy can come from using the libraries in new ways.”

The Laughing Room will be on display in the MIT Wiesner Student Art Gallery in May.

Related video: ARTificial Intelligence: The Laughing Room