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Scene at MIT: A nightmare on Ames Street

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MIT Media Lab
The Media Lab has never looked spookier . . .
The Media Lab has never looked spookier . . .
Image: Pinar Yanardhag, Manuel Cebrian, Iyad Rahwan; original photo by Andy Ryan.

“People are afraid of artificial intelligence, from autonomous cars making unethical decisions in accidents, to robots taking our jobs and causing mass unemployment, to runaway superintelligent machines obliterating humanity. Engineering pioneer and inventor Elon Musk famously said that as we develop AI, we are 'summoning the demon.'

Halloween is a time when people celebrate the things that terrify them. So it seems like a perfect occasion for an MIT project that explores society's fear of AI. And what better way to do this than have an actual AI literally scare us in an immediate, visceral sense? Postdoc Pinar Yanardhag, visiting scientist Manuel Cebrian, and I used a recently published, open-source deep neural network algorithm to learn features of a haunted house and apply these features to a picture of the Media Lab.

We also launched the Nightmare Machine website, where people can vote on which AI-generated horror images they find scary; these were generated using the same algorithm, combined with another recent algorithm for generating faces. So far, we've collected over 300,000 individual votes, and the results are clear: the AI demon is here, and it can terrify us. Happy Halloween!”

—Iyad Rahwan, AT&T Career Development Professor and an associate professor of media arts and sciences in the MIT Media Lab

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Press Mentions


In an effort to determine how different data impacts the view of AI, Media Lab researchers used gruesome images to train a system, which ultimately created a psychopathic AI, writes BBC reporter Jane Wakefield. "It highlights the idea that the data we use to train AI is reflected in the way the AI perceives the world and how it behaves," says Prof. Iyad Rahwan.

BBC News

Researchers at MIT have created an algorithm that transforms faces and popular landmarks into scarier versions with impressionistic, sketchy qualities, according to the BBC News. To help teach the algorithm about the concept of scariness, the researchers are asking people vote for the scariest images.  


Just in time for Halloween, MIT researchers have launched a website that uses algorithms to generate scary images based off of pictures of popular landmarks and public figures, reports Rebecca Hersher for NPR. The deep-learning algorithm creates “artistic images of high perceptual quality based on examples of images created by humans,” Hersher reports.

NBC News

Alyssa Newcomb writes for NBC News about the Nightmare Machine, a new system developed by MIT researchers that generates scary images based off of familiar faces and locations. “The Nightmare Machine gets scarier with help from humans, who are asked to vote on which images are the scariest,” Newcomb explains. 

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