Future Tense

 A.I. Take a Surprisingly Successful Stab at Writing Horror Fiction

“IT” or “I.T.”?

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Scientists working on A.I. development are at least trying to make sure our future machine overlords aren’t subject to the same flaws and negative habits that plague us flesh-and-bone humans. But there are some grotesqueries of the human mind we might like A.I. to emulate—for art’s sake.

It turns out, machines can be pretty damn good at spinning up a tale of murder, dread, despair, and supernatural terror. At least one is—Shelley A.I., a horror-writing bot created by researchers at the MIT Media Lab, debuting just in time for Halloween this year. Named after Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, the little horror-author-that-could is a deep learning algorithm that reads stories published in terror-inducing /r/nosleep subreddit and trains itself to write its own horror fiction.

It works. Here are some particularly creepy passages.

#MIRROR: “‘I slowly moved my head away from the shower curtain, and saw the reflection of the face of a tall man who looked like he was looking in the mirror in my room. I still couldn’t see his face, but I could just see his reflection in the mirror. He moved toward me in the mirror, and he was taller than I had ever seen. His skin was pale, and he had a long beard. I stepped back, and he looked directly at my face, and I could tell that he was being held against my bed.”

#BABY: “When I heard the phone ring again, I ran to the stairs. As I was running down the stairs, I started to hear crying. I shone my phone around the corner of the staircase and saw the crying baby getting closer. I crawled over to it and kicked it as hard as I could. The crying from the stairs turned into a soft metallic sound.”

#COMETOME: “She fell to the floor from her cries and muttered a soft ‘Come to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’.”

(That last passage is a pretty good lesson in how to make something scary: make it short, but piercing.)

Like any artist, Shelley does best when primed with some inspiration. The developers write that Shelley “takes a bit of inspiration in the form of a random seed, or a short snippet of text, and starts creating stories emanating from her creepy creative mind.” Horror-loving denizens of the internet can help her churn out nightmarish stories by submitting their own sentences to compositions in the making on Twitter. Like a digital game of exquisite corpse, Shelley will take those sentences forward to create a complete story (and in the process, take “exquisite corpse” to a more macabre level).

That last point is important—while A.I. are capable of generating artistic works in many instances, it’s a false assumption to think these are wholly original creative works. The algorithms, like Shelley, still require human-made works to teach themselves how to create phrases and sentences from words, how to generate drama and rising action and climax, how to access a lexicon that delivers the right sort of tone and purpose, and more. As Dan Rockmore and Allen Riddell wrote in Slate last year, “Narrative is difficult to articulate in an algorithm.”

This might be why an A.I. seems better equipped to write horror than dabble in any other kind of fiction genre. Horror is a form of writing that requires chilling scenes of anxious tone, blood-curdling language, characters that remain nebulous and mysterious, and fast action. An A.I. doesn’t need to deliver a ton of exposition or flesh out a backstory in order to create a good horror story. It doesn’t have to be a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It just needs to induce immediate shock and fear. And it turns out this is just another way that A.I. excels in inducing fear in the hearts of us mere mortals.