Apple will use AI to generate infinite emojis. Will it ruin the fun?

Apple is adding infinite, AI-generated emojis to the Messages app on iOS 18. (Apple)

No more yearning for Apple to drop a chicken nugget or head louse emoji. Soon, fresh emojis will be on demand with AI.

This fall, some iPhone owners will get the power to make custom emojis using AI in iOS 18. They can describe their emoji fever dreams in a search bar in the Messages app, and it will spin up bespoke emojis like a sad cowboy or a corgi wearing a suit of armor.

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Apple’s iMessage technology and accompanying blue bubbles hold some serious cultural cache. By adding the potential for unlimited, unhinged emojis, the company could springboard AI emojis to new digital-culture heights. Or it could fail to read the room and change how we communicate for the worse.

“This is the most mainstream version of an emoji image generator we’ve ever seen,” said Keith Broni, editor in chief of the emoji dictionary Emojipedia. It will “open the floodgates” of niche emoji creation.

Apple previewed these “Genmojis” along with a bevy of other artificial intelligence features at its annual developer conference this week, amid pressure to keep up with competitors in the race toward AI adoption. Genmojis will be powered by Apple’s own version of the technology used by other consumer image generators. Users of iOS 18 will also get an “Image Playground” app, where they can generate images in different styles. Both that and Genmojis will be built into Messages.

Apple declined to comment on what user insights, if any, inspired the Genmoji rollout.

People on social media are asking whether Genmojis will play nicely with green-bubble Android devices (they can be sent, but as image files) and what sort of guardrails Apple will include (i.e. how much leeway will we get with eggplants).

Like spoken language, emoji use evolves over time. Perhaps the biggest change since smartphones hit shelves is the shift from literal to ironic emoji use, especially among young people. While millennials preferred the on-the-nose crying-while-laughing face to indicate something was funny, Gen Z often opts for the figurative skull - meaning it’s so funny they died.

Teenagers are the undefeated champions of appropriating new technologies for their own use, said Loren Terveen, a computer science professor at University of Minnesota. Emojis help us convey meaning, says Terveen, who studies the many ways people use emojis, from portraying an emotion to making an oblique reference. And young people have shown emojis can be powerful tools for subversion and irony.

Both uses work best when the sender and receiver have a similar set of emojis to reference, Terveen said. Perhaps that’s why the cake and water drop emojis have taken on an (explicit) internet life of their own.

When people on TikTok want to say someone is an idiot, they use a clown emoji. It’s not for lack of emoji options - the clown has just developed a meaning of its own. What would that clown mean if it had a feather boa, a nose ring or a head injury?

Emojis are like a universal language, and the endless possibilities of AI might throw us off, Terveen said. How can we trust a recipient understands what we’re trying to indicate? How can we subvert the conventional use of an emoji when there’s no convention to subvert?

“If you’re constantly generating new emojis, you’re just illustrating the conversation, which isn’t the point,” said Trevor Jones, a 34-year-old animator in New Mexico. “It’s supposed to be a quick shorthand for something else.”

Jennifer Daniel, Google’s creative director for Android, sees it differently. Emoji Kitchen, a similar tool baked into Google’s Gboard app that lets users combine images into a new creation, doesn’t water down our emoji communication, she said. It enriches it.

“Language can feel like a low-bandwidth technology to communicate our infinitely prismatic emotions,” she said in an email. “There is no word to describe the deeply genuine gratitude that only a bouquet of hot dogs communicates.”

Some of Apple’s past efforts at spicing up the Messages app, including humanoid “Memojis” and screen-grabbed stickers, have fallen flat. Absurd or inappropriate Genmojis will probably make the rounds on social media. But will we be laughing with them or at them?

Emojipedia’s Broni has spent years scraping social media sites to better understand how people employ emojis. Genmojis may not produce the next viral icon - such as this wooden chair - but even if they never play a starring role in internet culture, they’ll probably become a mainstay in more private conversations, he said.

For example, despite Gen Z’s switch to ironic emoji use, the most popular emojis are still, by far, positive faces like the smiley, according to Emojipedia. Baked-in AI generators probably won’t change that, he said, but they could introduce millions of emojis beloved by one or two people. Close friends tend to develop their own group-speak, and that includes emojis. Broni said he has two iMessage-using friends who call each other “puffin,” in a romantic way. Cue an AI puffin emoji.

Nico Jackson, a 28-year-old real estate worker in California, appreciates a “nonserious” emoji or two. And he doesn’t expect AI to destroy the art of choosing the perfect ironic glyph.

“Even though you can make Genmojis hyper specific, it’s still going to take some inference from you and whoever you’re sending it to understand what it represents,” he said.

Nineteen-year-old Sam Stoof said even if Genmojis make his chats insufferable, he’s along for the ride.

“I’m excited for Genmojis in friend group chats,” Stoof said. “They’re going to be so cursed.”

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