The first image I tried to generate from the Dall-E Mini was of a cartoon character undergoing a colonoscopy. The site, now called Craiyon, contains an artificial intelligence model that can convert any submitted string of text into a picture. I’m a practicing gastroenterologist who considers myself online, but not very online, and the viral tweet that introduced me to the model also served as my standard for submitting what felt like an appropriate niche. These early efforts had mixed results: Daffy Duck stood on a stretcher, Pig Pig registered as a real pig, Bugs Bunny was inserted directly into a human colon, his gray ears bleeding in pink folds.
Since then, I’ve defaulted to curated experiences for Twitter accounts like Weird Dall-E Mini Generations, the top picks from Reddit . The genre’s popularity relies on a specialized calculus that pits the creativity of a user’s written input on a par with the fidelity of its visual output. What struck me most, though, was their early penchant for medical themes – “The car mechanic put a kidney in the engine”, “A DJ puts out sick beats in the heart room”, “wikihow how to use manufactured lights Impressing your wife comes from your gut,” et al.
Jokingly following a time-honored recipe at the intersection of high and low (see also the strange Dall-E Jesus and 9/11), and the accepted sanctity of medicine ripe for desecration . Perhaps the medical attention is just the developmental stage of the Dall-E Mini phenomenon, akin to a teenage sense of humor. The rough equivalence between “weird” and “out of bounds” echoes the technical crudeness of the images themselves, including a prejudice against smudged, featureless faces that gives them an almost nightmarish quality. For the same reason, scrutinizing the patterns of these images seems to be an exercise as useful as interpreting dreams. Even so, I wonder if it wasn’t just my mind that turned in a clinical direction when our collective imagination was brought to life by this powerful new canvas.
True, the traditional narrative of medical progress has always hinged on translating past fantasies into future realities: successful transplants of failed organs, cures for advanced cancers. Over the past few centuries, these achievements have cemented the perceptual power of medical science, while also bringing increasing clarity to the body. More recently, though, the zeitgeist’s take on healthcare has gotten darker. A still-simmering pandemic with a long tail of death, disability and socioeconomic upheaval; the recurring conflict between U.S. politics and public health, sparked by Covid and accelerated by partisan legislation around assault rifles and climate change; And the recent culmination of a decades-long offensive against reproductive rights, fundamentally redefining the capabilities of American medicine.
Some clinically-themed Dall-E Mini submissions carry the stamp of current events rather simply – “plague doctor onlyfans” or “fetuses with guns”. Others, however, seem to have been inspired by the more general biomedical surreal sentiment. Contrary to the usual rhetoric surrounding the triumphant march of biomedicine, the tension of contemporary clinical fantasy appears to be pulling society in the opposite direction, undermining the authority of science and the fundamental rules of human physiology. That sentiment is in keeping with the guiding ethos of the software (Salvador Dalí is one of its namesakes), while also realizing that these are particularly surreal times for biomedicine in the real world.
Whether surrealism is manifested prominently or on the fringes, we are flooded with fantastical representations of how the body works. For example, the Ohio legislature considered a bill in 2019 that would require the treatment of ectopic pregnancy by reimplanting the embryo into the uterus, even though the procedure is medically impossible. Environmental conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus vaccines suggest they can alter your DNA, render you sterile and/or facilitate your geolocation. Certain popular health trends—”horse medicine, but for people”—sounds almost like they’ve been reverse-engineered from Dall-E Mini cues.