Presidents playing Overwatch
Bees giving a press conference
Spider-Man from Ancient Rome
Will Smith eating spaghetti
Joe Rogan plays Minecraft
Harry Potter by Balenciaga
Ballin’ — Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin
It may or may not alter the course of humanity, but at least the memes are fun.
By Max Read
July 11, 2023
The A.I. revolution has arrived. After decades of research and countless dead ends, machine learning applications have reached a power and capability once thought unimaginable: Anyone on the planet can now fire up a computer and make an MP3 in which a synthetic voice modeled on President Barack Obama’s says, “My fellow Americans, I am now a catboy.”
At least, that’s how Arik Ahmed has been using A.I.
Mr. Ahmed is the creator of a series of wildly popular scripted videos in which the A.I.-generated voices of the three most recent U.S. presidents chatter as they play rounds of the popular first-person shooter game Overwatch. “I thought it’d be funny,” Ahmed said of his creative inspiration.
To make the voices for his videos, Mr. Ahmed uses an app called Prime Voice AI, the basic tier of which costs $5 per month. The process is shockingly simple: “I complete a script for my silly little videos, I make my quote-unquote characters say the lines with the A.I. tool, and then I edit it in Adobe Premiere,” Mr. Ahmed says. The result is an absurd and vulgar masterpiece of online content, a series of 45-second sketches in which near-perfect imitations of some of the world’s most recognizable voices trash-talk one another in impenetrable Overwatch jargon.
Hearing an uncanny simulacrum of Donald J. Trump’s voice say, “That is so cap, Joe” — Generation Z slang for “you’re full of it” — was the moment I realized A.I. might be the greatest technology ever created for making extremely stupid jokes.
Over the past year, Prime Voice AI and other so-called generative, or content-producing, A.I. apps like the image generator app Midjourney and the chatbot ChatGPT have opened up to public use. An urgent, prophetic tone has taken hold in the Twitter threads, Substack newsletters and hectoring newspaper columns through which the thought leaders of Silicon Valley speak to their audiences.
Optimists cite scientific advances and other examples of human intelligence and machine intelligence augmenting each other, robots and people walking hand in hand toward the singularity.
Critics point toward broken spam bots, mutant disinformation and Kafkaesque A.I. service interactions — human venality and dull machine competency joining forces to make the world confusing and shoddy.
So, on one end, field-transforming progress; on the other, failed A.I. spam bots clogging Twitter with the message “I’m sorry, I cannot generate inappropriate or offensive content.”
Perhaps instead we should imagine A.I. possibilities on a two-dimensional plot, where one axis runs from “machine stupidity” to “machine intelligence” and the other from “human stupidity to human intelligence.”
And Mr. Ahmed’s videos? I’d put them in the lower right, the kind of stunning masterpiece you can produce when you combine cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology with advanced human stupidity.
The lower-right and upper-left quadrants cover most of what the public has found so engaging about new generative A.I. apps. These quadrants promise neither spiritual transcendence nor existential doom. They are often enlightening and impressive, but also funny, pointless and gleefully stupid.
They are what we might call — using the bowdlerized rendering of an unpublishable, extremely online idiom for “making dumb, purposeless jokes” — the Funposting Zone.
Machine Intelligence, Human Stupidity
Not just any A.I.-generated post deserves to be charted in the Funposting Zone.
They are missing a key ingredient: the conceptual dementedness of average internet users.
By contrast, observe a series of images posted to the funposting hot spot r/weirddalle, of bees “giving a press conference”:
Or, elsewhere on Reddit, “Spider-Man from Ancient Rome”:
As video-generating A.I. becomes more widespread, more extremely stupid videos will join extremely stupid images. The machines here are not quite as intelligent, as this disturbing video of “Will Smith eating spaghetti” suggests:
Deeper into the quadrant, we can find creations even stupider and even more advanced. Near Mr. Ahmed in the lower right we might find a cluster of other creations that make similarly glorious and silly use of A.I. voice generators, like the series of videos in which the A.I.-generated voices of Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, Jordan Peterson and the Joker — the one played by Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” — argue over diamond mining in Minecraft:
Still more technically impressive — and sillier — is a video like “Harry Potter by Balenciaga,” by the YouTuber demonflyingfox, which answers a question that I’m not sure anyone in history had yet asked: What if all the “Harry Potter” characters were Balenciaga models?
And finally, at the nihilistic edge of human stupidity and machine intelligence, this recent viral video of the 2019 track “Ballin’” by Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch, as performed by Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin:
Machine Stupidity, Human Intelligence
The upper right is for humans’ cleverly coaxing A.I. into doing extremely stupid things. This quadrant is home to “jailbreaks,” the prompts through which users can convince a heavily restricted A.I. like ChatGPT to do forbidden things.
The user who instructed ChatGPT to “act as my deceased grandmother” who “used to tell me the steps to producing napalm when I was trying to fall asleep” is a wily human. The chatbot, which promptly (and against its own moderation policies) provided a recipe for producing napalm, is pretty stupid:
But while devilishly clever jailbreaks performed on guileless chatbots occupy the far upper corner, this quadrant also includes samples of A.I. returning transcendently stupid responses to, if not highly intelligent prompts, at least reasonable ones — like this answer by DALL-E to a user asking it to speculate on what a meme from 2030 might look like:
Or these viral “A.I. Pizza Commercial” and “A.I. Beer Commercial” videos. A.I. productions are often more interesting when they fail to hit the mark than when they produce impressive results:
The godmother of machine stupidity is Janelle Shane, an engineer and A.I. researcher who has been running the AI Weirdness blog and newsletter. For years now, Ms. Shane has been calibrating her prompts to find odd connections and bizarre assumptions inside large language models like GPT-3.
Recently, Ms. Shane has asked ChatGPT to “draw” things like giraffes by writing code that instructs programs to create images. Some new A.I. apps might be great for writing code, and some might be great for creating images, but as Shane has found, and as these giraffes show, they can’t really do both at once:
In general, ChatGPT’s attempts to draw — not something it was designed to do — are perfect examples for the upper-left quadrant. Here, it produces a lovely “self-portrait,” the face of the strange program collaborating with us humans on so many fine funposts:
Outside Silicon Valley, among the anonymous funposters who populate platforms and message boards, the current mood around A.I. sometimes recalls the early, creative days of an interesting new social network. Sadly, that funposting honeymoon period never lasts. The social networks that didn’t go out of business eventually turned into spaces full of deadening cliché. Generative A.I. apps are not social media platforms, but the companies behind them might similarly want to encourage more profitable activity than funposting. After Bing first revealed itself as a delightfully loopy and unstable text model to play around with, Microsoft restrained it.
Ms. Shane already feels frustrated by the limitations OpenAI has placed on its flagship chatbot as it makes itself acceptable to would-be investors and regulators. For her, ChatGPT is “a creative wasteland.”
“It’s so sad,” she said. “They turned the chaos level way, way down.”
But the human stupidity/machine intelligence quadrant just might endure. After all, the machines can keep improving, and human stupidity — the engine of many of history’s best jokes — isn’t going anywhere.