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MIT demonstrates nightmare-fuel AI just in time for Halloween

Putting machine learning to a novel use as a social experiment, MIT’s Media Lab has debuted an AI that churns out nightmare-fuel images, just in time for Halloween. In the late autumn, it would seem, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of gaping, disfigured maws, and things that lurk waiting in the night. We seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for being creeped out, jangled or outright scared, and the Nightmare Machine is quite the creepy fix.

The idea is that you give the algorithm a photo and the algorithm will return a creepified version meant to give you the heebie-jeebies. While they don’t yet have a tool to submit one’s own photos for alteration, they have a set of demo photos transformed from a perfectly innocuous vista into something downright unsettling. They’ve got a bunch of different effects for the demo: things like “slaughterhouse,” “toxic city” and “alien invasion.” Faces bear an uncanny resemblance to the illustrations from Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark. Visitors to the site can rate the algorithm on its performance, so it can get better at scaring the pants off the next visitor. It can creepify faces and places, turning an innocent smile into a horrifying jump-scare hybrid of Chuckie and Silence of the Lambs, and distorting a sun-dappled pastoral landscape into a place you’d turn your high beams on and step on the accelerator to get through. The Nightmare Machine particularly loves messing with eyes and mouths, turning them into a bloody smear of snaggle teeth and soulless staring. It’s like a visual Markov generator for visceral horror: in other words, a creepypasta gold mine.

Yep, this is exactly what we needed: to teach our nascent robot overlords how to scare us better. Clearly there will be no chilling effects downstream as we use this technology against one another until the machines outstrip their masters at the fine art of psychological manipulation.

Horror is really in the Nightmare Machine’s pedigree. 200 years ago, in 1816, we saw the Year Without a Summer: probably due to the volcanic winter after the eruption of Mount Tambora, most of the world just never got a summer that year. During a particularly bleak, wet stretch, Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John William Polidori all holed up in a mansion and challenged one another to see who could write the scariest story. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and Lord Byron wrote the poem Darkness, the first work in the apocalyptic horror genre, narrated by the last man on earth. Byron also wrote a fragment that Polidori would use for inspiration when he wrote The Vampyre, which would later become Dracula. AI and horror first formally crossed paths when Lord Byron’s only legitimate scion, Ada Lovelace, wrote the Analysis Engine in 1840: the first machine algorithm, for use by a computing machine which only existed on paper. Now, upon the bicentennial of the Year Without a Summer, they meet again.

Title image is from Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark, illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

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