A.I. Nightmare Machine

The idea of artificial intelligence (AI) — autonomous computers that can learn independently — makes some people extremely uneasy, regardless of what the computers in question might be doing. Those individuals probably wouldn’t find it reassuring to hear that a group of researchers is deliberately training computers to get better at scaring people witless. The project, appropriately enough, is named “Nightmare Machine.” Digital innovators in the U.S. and Australia partnered to create an algorithm that would enable a computer to understand what makes certain images frightening, and then use that data to transform any photo, no matter how harmless-looking, into the stuff of nightmares.


“We know that AI terrifies us in the abstract sense,” co-creator Pinar Yanardag, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts, wrote in an email. “But can AI scare us in the immediate, visceral sense?” The designers used a form of artificial intelligence called “deep learning” — a system of data structures and programs mimicking the neural connections in a human brain — to teach a computer what makes for a frightening visual.

“Elon Musk said that with the development of AI, we are ‘summoning the demon,'” co-creator Iyad Rahwan, an associate professor at MIT Media Lab, told Live Science. “We wanted to playfully explore whether and how AI can indeed become a demon, that can learn how to scare us, both by extracting features from scary images and subsequent refinement using crowd feedback,” Rahwan said. He added that the timing of their spooky experiment — close to Halloween — was no accident.