A Truly Scary AI

Just when you thought it was impossible for the world to hold more existential dread, researchers at MIT are experimenting with an AI that is learning to write scary stories.

As reported in Atlas Obscura [atlas] the AI has been trained using an input set drawn from:

Shelley has been trained on more than 140,000 horror stories posted on Reddit’s r/nosleep subreddit

Presumably, the team at MIT have figured out a way to prevent the AI’s training from being tainted, like happened with Microsoft’s Tay chat-bot. If there is a threat of human extinction from an AI trained to kill us all, reddit is a good place to train a human-loathing, vicious, AI. And feeding it with stories of the horrible things humans’ imaginations come up with – what could possibly go wrong?

Human authors have nothing to fear at the moment, says associate professor Iyad Rahwan. “Algorithms are still not very good at generating complex narrative.” While human creativity appears to be infinite, machines are limited by what we can teach them, at least for now. “If we can build machines that understand the very essence of human experience, we would have bigger problems than simply losing jobs in creative writing,” he adds.

From SF Theater play of Shelly’s Frankenstein

I like that way of putting it: the AI is constrained by its universe. But I’m not sure if human creativity can be infinite – even extreme surrealism, like Chuck Tingle’s flights of fantasy, are somewhat constrained by the possibilities inherent in humanity; the most radical science fiction still deals with issues like death, taxes, and conflict. It might be possible for an AI to rearrange ideas to the point where characters’ motives were unrecognizable, but then, would there be any point in the stories? We look at fiction because it’s a mirror of ourselves.

The MIT AI doesn’t write very well, but neither does Dan Brown and he’s sold about a jillion books. If you want to read its stories, they are on the site at MIT [mit].

Perhaps someone needs to train an AI critic.

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An AI erotobot would be another interesting project.

A tip of the old output layer to Caine [aff] who told me about this one.


  1. says

    The writing isn’t great in Story #1, but the idea isn’t at all bad. Shadows, when done well, are enjoyably scary. If an AI ever gets to the level of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream*, we’ll be in trouble.
    *Yeah, yeah, that will always be more horror to me than SciFi.

  2. says

    If an AI ever gets to the level of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream*, we’ll be in trouble.

    I won’t be able to read at all. Or I’ll need tactical sunglasses and a reading bunker. Actually, a reading bunker sounds kinda cool and dank and warm.

    (Almost done Fred Vargas’ Have Mercy on Us All…)

  3. cartomancer says

    My RPG group once tried out some of Vampire: The Masquerade’s rules for alternative vampire ethical systems. The principle behind those being that as vampires age and the ennui of immortality take hold they become increasingly inhuman and start to see the world in very peculiar ways. Game-wise it means you have lists of transgressions against your weirdly alien moral code in order of seriousness, and have to use them to navigate your character’s idiosyncratic feelings about the world. You might be a vampire who has defined his life in obsessively materialistic terms, and believe that theft is far more serious than murder for example. Or you might consider formal courtesy to be vitally important but backstabbing and betrayal to be admirable if conducted within the bounds of propriety.

    Suffice to say it wasn’t very successful. The players were essentially painting by numbers and none of it seemed terribly dramatic or resonant. Our elderly vampires did very peculiar things, and responded to each other with rage, puzzlement or indifference. It worked much better when the characters still had recognisably human moral sentiments, albeit exaggerated ones.

  4. says


    (Almost done Fred Vargas’ Have Mercy on Us All…)

    I love that one! Gives you a bit of The Three Evangelists (the historians, Marc, Mathias, Lucien, and Armand of course – there are 3 evangelist books). Clementine is back in Wash This Blood Clean from My Hands, along with Josette, an elderly hacker extraordinaire. :D

  5. komarov says

    Indeed, what is missing is the AI’s ability to rate the stories for itself – just like the self-trained gaming AIs that were able to quickly exeed humans because they weren’t constrained to the human approach to learning. So the goal here should be an AI that can drive itself mad with terror. As you said, what could possibly go wrong?

    In the meantime, perhaps a more realistic goal might be an AI writing religious texts. If the Bible is anything to go by the standards there are much more relaxed. You could make a fortune by releasing a Slightly Newer Testament every six months.* just don’t forget to cut the Vatican in for a percentage. Just consider it a marketing expense; papal approval sells.

    *”Includes the long lost book of Aardvark”

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