AI & Memes: Understanding Visual Humor


This lesson immerses students in the rapidly evolving world of Artificial Intelligence, a field that is increasingly influential in many aspects of our lives. By exploring AI’s capabilities and limitations in image recognition and interpretation, students develop critical thinking skills, learning to navigate and analyze the intersection of technology and media. This lesson engages students with hands-on activities that blend technology, creativity, and analytical thinking, preparing them for a future where AI plays a significant role in various domains.
Materials Needed Time needed 
  • Projector to display images and websites
  • Image files of memes to use in analysis
Approximately 30 minutes
  • Students will be able to explain the basic principles of AI as they relate to image recognition.
  • Students will be able to critically analyze the descriptions and interpretations provided by AI for various images.
  • Students will be able to compare and contrast the ways in which AI and humans perceive and interpret images.
Key Concepts & Vocabulary 

Artificial Intelligence (AI): The simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems.

Machine Learning: The process by which AI systems learn from data to make decisions or predictions.

Dataset: A collection of data used to train and test an AI model. In image recognition, datasets typically consist of a large number of images labeled for training purposes.

  • Introduce AI (Artificial Intelligence) as a tool that can analyze content within images. One of the most effective tools at this task is currently Microsoft’s Bing.
  • Bring up the component parts of a meme – most memes have images and text.
    • Memes are an excellent genre to use for this study because they typically contain both images and text. This makes for an interesting study looking at how AI interprets both aspects of the image, and describes the interplay between the two.
  • Show examples of memes that may be popularly known. (Make sure to look up memes before class, since there are many that would not be considered appropriate for school.)
    • Put a meme image up on the projector for students to view. Ask students to describe just the image (Not the text).
    • Ask the students to predict how an AI might describe them.
      • For example, the AI might have very detailed but unspecific descriptions of the image. The AI might recognize that the image contains a cat, but not know the identity of the cat. It might give details about aspects of the image that humans wouldn’t mention, such as the texture of the background or the width of lines in art.
  • Ask students to describe the text and explain how it relates to the image. 
    • Ask them to explain why / if the meme is funny. What is the connection that the meme creator was trying to make?
  • Ask students to predict how an AI might describe the text.
    • For example, the AI might give a description of the style and size of the font, and how it connects with the image. The AI’s description of the connection may be very literal and overly explained.
  • Explain that AI tools such as Bing Chat use machine learning to analyze images. 
    • Models are trained on huge datasets of images, which get labeled by human users. This process repeated many times is called Machine Learning. The AI computers “learn” to understand what “cat” or “tree” look like by analyzing the tags on millions of images. They associate specific pixel patterns with specific labels.
  • Go to Microsoft’s Bing Chat and put in a meme image, either by uploading an image file or pasting the image URL into the chat. (See example at the end of the lesson.)
    • Prompt Bing Chat to describe the image and text.
    • Prompt Bing Chat to explain why the meme is funny.
    • Discuss with the class the AI’s analysis of humor, focusing on the limitations of the AI in understanding context, cultural references, and the subtleties of humor.
      • Ask: “Does the AI actually explain the humor accurately?”
    • In many cases, a meme is a reference to a cultural or entertainment event, and that context may be lost on Bing Chat. Students may have additional context for a meme explanation due to seeing memes online or on social media.
    • Additionally, many memes are self-referential, meaning that they comment on the way that meme has been used in the past. Bing Chat will not necessarily have that history to help it explain the humor.
  • Repeat the process with additional memes if desired.
  • Lead the whole group in discussion about the experience.
Discussion Questions
  • How accurately do you think the AI understood the meme’s content?
  • Were there any elements that it explained particularly well, or missed entirely?
  • Can AI understand humor the way humans do?
  • What unique qualities do humans bring to understanding memes?
  • How important is cultural context in understanding memes, and how well do you think AI can grasp this context?
  • Discuss the ethical implications of using AI to interpret and create media content. 
  • In what sorts of situations could you see AI’s image analysis ability being particularly useful to humans?
Supplemental Activity Ideas 

Humans vs. AI: Comparative Analysis: Students conduct a comparative analysis of how AI and humans understand humor in memes differently. Groups of students select a series of memes and show them to classmates. Then they upload the memes to Bing Chat to get AI’s perspective on the same memes. Students then compare the two perspectives, looking for areas of similarity and difference. Students could prepare a presentation explaining their findings.

DIY Meme Creation and Analysis: Assign a creative project where students create their own memes and write an AI-like analysis of them, highlighting the challenges they think AI would face in interpreting their memes.

Sources to Learn More