Brian Blum
July 26, 2017

Sarcasm is no laughing matter for people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, who have difficulty interpreting subtle irony and humor.

It’s an issue that’s become increasingly important as sarcastic comments abound on social media. A tweet like “The new ‘Fast and Furious’ movie is awesome. #sarcasm” is meant to be read the opposite of how it is written, but for some people, this literary twist is not readily apparent.

Researchers in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology say they can transform sarcasm into straightforward statements using machine translation and artificial intelligence.

Sarcasm SIGN (for “Sentimental Interpretation GeNerator”) would transform the sarcastic sentence above to read “The new ‘Fast and Furious’ movie is terrible.”

Sentiment analysis applications are not new. Companies like Rosette Text Analytics pore over documents to look for attitudes, opinions and emotions to help companies predict employee churn, assess financial risk and volatility, understand market trends and disruptions, monitor signals for national security threats, and enable overseas call centers to better support their customers.

But existing apps get stuck interpreting sarcasm, says Lotam Peled, the industrial engineering and management graduate student who developed Sarcasm SIGN.

Peled, under the guidance of Assistant Prof. Roi Reichart, compiled a database of some 3,000 sarcastic tweets tagged with the #sarcasm hashtag. Five human experts then turned the tweets into non-sarcastic sentiments. (“Best day ever” became “worst day ever,” for example.) The tweet pairings were subsequently fed into the Sarcasm SIGN system, training it to identify words with strong sarcastic sentiments.

A second batch of human judges scored the system’s interpretations for fluency and adequacy. In most cases, the judges said it produced “a semantically and linguistically correct sentence.”

If Sarcasm SIGN becomes available to people with autism and Asperger’s, it could improve communication between people and computers and between social media users.

And that’s no joke at all.

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