A feature on Motherboard (and available from quite a few sites on this particularly frightening day in the calendar) informs readers that “MIT is teaching AI to Scare Us”. Well that’s just great. Anyone insufficiently nervous anyway about the potential perils of AI itself, or not already rendered catatonic in anxiety over the conniptions of the American election, can go onto the specially confected Nightmare Machine website and consult a specially prepared timeline that advances from the Celtic stirrings of Hallowe’en two millennia ago to this very year in which AI-boosted “hell itself breathes out contagion to the world.”
The highlight – or murky darkfest – feature of the site is the interactive gallery of faces and places, concocted and continually refined by algorithms seeking to define the essence of scary. So much of what we sense about horror is rather like our sense of what it is that makes humour funny: it is less induced from core principles but is rather deduced from whatever succeeds in eliciting the scream of terror or laughter. It cannot be a surprise, therefore, that the Nightmare Machine mission is proving perfect for machine learning to get its artificial fangs into. Website visitors rank the images for scariness and, the theory goes, the images get scarier.
Another school of thought, reflected in articles like this piece in Salon on the creepy clown phenomenon, sees the fright not so much in what others find frightening as in what serves as a projection of our own internal terrors. The clowns and gargoyles that stalk the political landscape are to a large extent projections of ourselves: of our own deepest fears for the more empathetic among us, or as simple avenging avatars for the morally bereft or culturally dispossessed.
When AI moves beyond its current picture recognition capabilities into deeper areas of understanding our own inner fears and darkest thoughts, the ultimate fright will no longer lie in some collection of pixels. It will seep from the knowing look you get from your android doppelganger — to all intents and purposes you to the very life — as your watching friend asks, “Which you is actually you?” Your friend doesn’t know, but you know, and of course it knows . . . and it knows that you know that it knows . . .