In March 2020, the image-hosting and meme-sharing site Imgflip quietly rolled out a new feature: an AI meme generator. With a click, users could employ a machine trained on thousands of image macros to create a meme without having to think of an actual joke themselves.
The feature, called “This Meme Does Not Exist,” led to a joyful few days on Twitter as people eagerly shared the surreal and wickedly non-sequitur memes the program churned out. The memes of This Meme Does Not Exist looked very-nearly man-made. Many had recognizable setups (i.e. “When you see a girl, but …”) and, in some cases, highly appropriate punchlines. In one example, the text read, “Me: turns off the fan because it’s cold. Everyone else in the helicopter:” over an image of Tom from “Tom and Jerry” looking concerned and confused. If it was posted to r/dankmemes by a snarky 15-year-old, it probably would have gotten 40,000 upvotes.
This Meme Does Not Exist allows users to select one of 40 familiar meme templates and the AI does the rest. Impressively, the generator appears to understand where text usually goes on memes, such as filling the four empty slots of Expanding Brain, the labeling appearing in the appropriate spots in the Is This A Pigeon?, etc. This often ends in an absolute trainwreck of an image, as the setups for each meme are not paid off by the ensuing punchlines. In one generated Expanding Brain meme, the top, small-brain part read, “Phone for project” before “expanding” to “Complain about socialism,” “Party at all,” and finally, “Look at the ass.” Obviously, there is no connection between any of these four items, but to a reader trained on seeing and interpreting memes daily, that’s what’s funny about it. Our brains are so used to following the context of a meme, so accustomed to each template’s logic, that the chaos of having that logic removed is simply delightful.
This Meme Does Not Exist is just one of several pieces of AI-generated humor that have gone viral in the past several years. In 2017, Botnik Studios began churning out “Predictive Text” parodies of popular media. It’s created phony scripts for Seinfeld, Scrubs_, -Arrested Development, and others. Its most popular creation, “Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash,” perfectly skewers the prose of J.K. Rowling with an avalanche of discordant verbs and nouns. “The pig of Hufflepuff pulsed like a large bullfrog,” goes one section. “Dumbledore smiled at it, and placed his hand on its head: ‘You are Hagrid now.’”
As of now, humanity hasn’t. For all the noise AI has made in recent years, thanks to it being able to come out with some decent humor and art, there is still one crucial interloper between the AI and the masses: human curation. While Botnik Studios’ creations seem like delightfully anarchic prose, they were not simply churned out that way. A team of comedians selects the best predictive text words to make the content funny (and in turn, popular). Similarly, when one goes to This Meme Does Not Exist, not every AI-generated meme will be gold. One will have to refresh the page multiple times before stumbling upon a meme that actually hits the sweet spot of delightful, nonsensical humor and isn’t simply a jumble of words.
While the extent to which programmers have been able to push AI in a few short years is surely impressive, they continue to struggle at infusing it with intangible facets of the human experience, such as art appreciation and comedy. In “I, Robot,” Will Smith’s character famously asks a robot, “Can a robot write a symphony?,” and the robot retorts, “Can you?” A better question would have been, “Can a robot appreciate a symphony?” At the moment, the answer is no, which is why AI struggles at recreating things like comedy and art. None of these generators’ jokes, waifus or fursonas would be popular without a human saying, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” And for now, perhaps thankfully, that’s what’s keeping the robot uprising at bay. When it gets to a human’s layer of irony, then we’re in trouble.