MIT built an A.I. bot that writes scary stories — and some are terrifying

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If you want something really spooky to get you in the mood for Halloween, how about the prospect of machines which don’t just carry out regular routinized work, but can actually be creative — thereby performing a function we typically view as being quintessentially human? That’s (kind of) what researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed with a new October 31-themed artificial intelligence project: The world’s first collaborative A.I. horror writer.

Found on Twitter, “Shelley” tweets out the beginning of a new horror story every hour, alongside the hashtag #yourturn as an invitation to human co-writers. Anyone is welcome to reply to the tweet with the next installment of the story, thereby prompting Shelley to reply again with the next part.

“Shelley is a deep learning-based A.I. that took her name [from] horror story writer, Mary Shelley,” Pinar Yanardhag, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “She initially trained on over 140,000 horror stories on Reddit’s popular r/nosleep subreddit, and is able to generate random snippets based on what she learned, or continue a story given a text. We expect Shelley to inspire people to write the weirdest and scariest horror stories ever put together. So far, Shelley has co-authored over 100 stories with Twitter users, and some of them are really scary.”

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Meghan Murphy

A collection of some of the stories generated by Shelley can be found here. The researchers say that the work is designed to tap into some of the fears that surround humans and A.I. relationships, and the project builds on the success of MIT’s 2016 Halloween project, which used neural networks to generate scary images.

Can machines really replace human writers? “Human authors have nothing to fear in the short term,” Iyad Rahwan, an associate professor in MIT’s Media Lab, told us. “Today, A.I. algorithms can generate highly structured content, such as reports on market developments or sports games. They can also generate less structured, more creative content, like short snippets of text. But algorithms are still not very good at generating complex narrative. It will be a while before we have an A.I. version of J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, [although] there are no guarantees about where things are headed in the medium or long term — and machines may eventually be able to construct complex narratives, and explore new creative spaces in fiction.”

As Rahwan points out, however, if we really do build machines that are able to experience the world around them as fully as humans can, and use this to generate their own unique ideas, we have bigger problems than simply losing a few jobs in creative writing.