Happy Halloween! Here's an AI-Powered 'Nightmare Machine'

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Everyone is scared of something: clowns, public speaking, spiders, your annual dental checkup. But different stimuli—rational or irrational—evoke different psychological responses, so researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) set out to discover what unites people in our phobias and fears.

The Nightmare Machine, from Data61 and MIT Media lab teams, uses artificial intelligence to generate scary imagery, "designed to spook the living daylights out of us mere civilians," CSIRO said in a blog post.

Two deep-learning algorithms work to transform what most humans perceive as "idyllic" scenes—an Ikea catalogue, the Taj Mahal—into a slaughterhouse or inferno.

"We started little by little, experimenting with what we call the 'nightmarifying' process," Manuel Cebrian, principal research scientist at Data61, said in a statement.

First, algorithms examine haunted houses, ghost towns, and toxic cities, and then apply the learned style to famous landmarks.

"It's surprising how well the algorithm can extract the element from the 'scary' templates and plant it into the landmarks,' Cebrian added.

Researchers invite the public to go online and rate spooky images by scariness factor; each click generates more user data for the algorithms. The team has collected more than 200,000 individual evaluations of computer-generated images so far. Initial data, Cebrian said, "reveal that humans quickly converge on finding some of them very scary, and others not so much."

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