Drake advocating a coup. Distracted Boyfriend casting his gaze toward carbs. Leonardo DiCaprio suggesting it’s time to have a dick. Truly none of these things make sense. Yet as people worldwide are fully in their second month of coronavirus quarantine (or should be), they’re all oddly hilarious notions. Perhaps it’s stir-craziness, but the images burped out by the AI meme generator—a recently added feature of the site Imgflip—make a random kind of sense. At a time when nothing is rational or orderly (somehow, large gatherings of people are threatening herd immunity, know what I mean?), jokes created by machine learning aren’t what anyone would call “good” or “hilarious,” but they do reflect a certain kind of fractured collective psyche. Why not enjoy them? If AI can’t stop this pandemic, the least it can do is provide some absurdist art.
Titled, wryly, This Meme Does Not Exist, the tool is very simple: Select from one of dozens of popular memes and let the generator do the rest. Pick Dave Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums’ Y’all Got Any More of That meme and it’ll spit out something about emails. Choose Yoda and he’ll come back with a joke about your mom. The actual words themselves come from a corpus of some 100 million captions submitted to Imgflip’s meme generator. To keep things simple, the site trained its AI using just the 48 most popular memes and 20,000 captions per meme, for 960,000 captions total. “However, since we are building a generational model there will be one training example for each character in the caption, totaling ~45,000,000 training examples,” Imgflip founder Dylan Wenzlau wrote in a very thorough blog post describing the tool’s creation. “Character-level generation rather than word-level was chosen here because memes tend to use spelling and grammar … uh … creatively.” Put another way, the machine doesn’t generate each meme word by word but character by character. Hence really complex—and at times bizarre—word combinations. Memes used creative syntax to begin with; having it fed into an AI and regenerated makes it look like something put through Google Translate too many times.
It also looks like something akin to art. There’s an almost collage-like aspect to the images the meme generator is producing, like it’s feeding the internet’s twisted humor back to it as a form of commentary. The computer didn’t just look at DiCaprio and think, “Hm, something about dicks … ?” It came up with that based on things others had already said. Same with Distracted Boyfriend and bread. There’s something inherently surrealist about it. The project’s name invokes other AI image experiments like This Person Does Not Exist or This Cat Does Not Exist, but it also seems to echo “This Is Not a Pipe.” The early 20th century had Magritte; the early 21st century has memes. The treachery of images remains the same.
That is likely why the AI meme generator has taken off. Wenzlau posted his first paper on the project a little over a year ago, and researchers at Stanford have been using machine learning to make memes for nearly two years. Yet it’s only been recently, perhaps even in the last 24 hours, that social media has latched onto these memes. Such are the ways of the internet; memes that fall in the woods don’t get LOLs, memes that land on Twitter do. That said, this time feels most ripe for this kind of humor. Amid coronavirus’s virulent march, lockdowns, protests against lockdowns, and daily White House briefings that feel disconnected from the experiences of everyday Americans, everything feels absurdist. There is senseless death, and even more senseless politicking around it. People are turning to social media in droves to find connection and maybe relief. Some laughs would help, but the web’s collective sense of humor feels tapped out. Joking about a pandemic can be a much-needed release, but who wants to crack wise? Maybe it’s time to let the computers take this one.