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Wishing you a happy Valentine’s Day, with all my sparklepants

A researcher challenged an OpenAI network to create Valentine's card designs with classic phrases. The results weren't what you'd expect.

A collage of several valentine's day cards generated by AI. Images courtesy Janelle Shane.

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If you’ve ever chatted with a customer service rep and received such canned answers to your questions that you’ve wondered—am I speaking with a human?—you know that interactions with AI often get lost in translation. Bots and algorithms may be programmed by real people, and yet the results often lack the nuance of an interaction with another living, breathing being. But instead of working to improve those connections, AI researcher Janelle Shane is pushing the weirdness of our relationship with AI to the max. If she had a motto it might be: If it’s not broken, can we break it even more?

If you sent your romantic prospects one of her cursed candy hearts for Valentine’s Day last year, you’re familiar with her brand of tech-enabled humor. Instead of chalky Brach’s Conversation Hearts spelling messages like “True Love” or “Say Yes,” Shane’s candies were created using an AI program called BigGAN and an image-generating algorithm called CLIP that churned out horrorshow hearts with adages like “Sweat Poo,” “Stank Love,” and “Hole.”

This year, she’s followed up with something slightly sweeter, but still strange, with her take on the store-bought Valentine’s Cards kits you probably handed out to your grade school classmates. But instead of a love note from SpongeBob or Harry Potter, Shane fed her trusty neural network a list of traditional Valentine’s messages and corresponding images and received a stream of, shall we say, less traditional results.

12 Valentine card samples by research scientist Janelle Shane.
Some AI-generated sweet nothings. Image courtesy Janelle Shane.

For this experiment, she used DaVinci, one of the largest OpenAI networks. DaVinci collects readily available internet text (articles, Reddit threads, comments, user reviews, etc.) and analyzes the language patterns to generate human-like writing. To create her Valentine’s cards, Shane fed DaVinci messages from 10 actual cards like, “Step into your power! - Image of a fearless ice witch” (a note from a Frozen-themed card) as well as punnier ones like, “Valentine: you’re clawfully nice! - Image of a lobster.”

So how successful was AI in picking up the subtle nuance of a good old-fashioned pun? The results were, predictably, weird, like: “Powered by this, you are my one true love! - Image of a grey slug who says ‘Oh no. Not again.’” And: “I crush you the heart cake way! - Image of a cow holding a cronut.”

Images courtesy Janelle Shane.

So why hack AI for a laugh instead of improve it? Simple. “Pushing the boundaries of how strange AI can be is just fun,” says Shane. “I’m also fascinated by testing how far I can take this.” She admits that the smarter AI gets, the harder it is for her to make it weird. “I think I have to change my approach. AI results are getting more generic. They’re training themselves to be as ordinary as possible. A lot of the AI-generated text is really boring.” So she’s focused on finding what’s still hard for it to do, like “generating a horse with the correct number of legs.”

And, of course, using it to write the season’s most unexpected love letters. If sending your lover one of her cards doesn’t seal the deal this year, try her pick-up lines instead.

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