The mysterious origin of Halloween traditions can be traced back to the ancient pagan festivals celebrated by Celts. The Celtic people marked the day as the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter. They believed the transition between the seasons opens a gate to the world of the dead.
Eastern and Western Civilizations have scripted legends of human-made entities -- artificial beings capable of thinking, feeling, helping or harming others. These creatures would, in many stories, escape the controls of their creators, and gain knowledge and abilities beyond expectation.
The spring of 1816 saw one of the strangest meteorological phenomena ever recorded: a never-ending winter. This resulted in three great writers locking themselves at a mansion at Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley, John William Polidori, and Lord Byron had a competition to see who could produce the scariest story ever written. And they all won. Shelley created Frankenstein; Polidori planted the seed of Vampirism; and Byron, in his poem Darkness, narrated by the last man on earth, produced the first example of the apocalyptic horror genre.
AI and Horror cross paths: Anne Isabella Milbanke, wife of Lord Byron (the founding father of modern Vampire literature) gives birth to Ada Lovelace, a pioneer in the history of computation. Ada would go on to write the world's first machine algorithm for an early computing machine that had until then existed only on paper.
1930s movie screens exploit like no other medium before, offering the emotional ride of getting scared in a dark room with strangers. Many movie hits, from Frankenstein, to Dracula, to The Mummy, to The Invisible Man, culminating in Werewolf in London, put horror front and center of how society decides to have a really good time ... spawning a creative and lucrative horror-making industry.
The summer of 1956 -- this time, a hot one -- brings Marvin Minsky and other brilliant minds together at Darthmouth College. In an explosion of creativity, they plant the seeds of what Artificial Intelligence would become: developing programs able to beat humans at checkers, to do complex math; some of these machines were even able to formulate English sentences. Rumour went that the first sentences typed by a computer were "TRICK OR TREAT?"
For centuries, across geographies, religions, and cultures, people have tried to innovate ways of scaring one other. Creating a visceral emotion such as fear remains one of the cornerstones of human creativity. This challenge is especially important in a time in which we wonder what the limits of Artificial Intelligence are: can machines learn to scare us?
In Halloween 2016, we presented the Nightmare Machine: AI-generated scary imagery, where we collected over 2 million votes from people all over the world. Nightmare Machine is among the first AI projects that tackles a specific challenge: can AI not only detect but induce extreme emotions (such as fear) in humans? (read more about the Nightmare Machine at media including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, FiveThirtyEight and more!)
This Halloween, we present Shelley: the world's first collaborative AI Horror Writer! Shelley is a deep-learning powered AI who was raised reading eerie stories collected from r/nosleep. Now as an adult, and not unlike Mary Shelley - her Victorian idol - she 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. But what Shelley truly enjoys is to work collaboratively with humans, learning from their nightmarish ideas, creating the best scary tales ever. If you want to work with her, just respond to the stories she would start every hour on her Twitter account, and she will write with you the first AI-Human horror anthology ever put together!
Read human-AI collaborated stories at stories.shelley.ai.
Post-doc at Scalable Cooperation, MIT Media Lab
Research Manager at Scalable Cooperation, MIT Media Lab
Associate Professor at Scalable Cooperation, MIT Media Lab
Special thanks to:
Selem Delul for helping with the web platform, Osvaldo Galeano and Mason Kortz from Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic for their legal assistance, and Meghan Murphy for creating the Shelley illustration, Micah Epstein for creating dynamic text posts on our Instagram page.
Finally, we would like to thank to r/nosleep community for creating amazingly creepy stories over the last 10 years!