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AI is making Halloween so much spookier

Thanks for the nightmares, technology.

Ghost hunters are notorious for lurking through graveyards and “haunted” houses with camcorders set to night-shot mode, anxious to catch spirits on video. No matter that these hunters are really just seeing glimmers of light hitting a hypersensitive camera sensor. The footage can be sensational all the same, if only because it serves to remind us of so many people who’ve lived before we did, occupying this planet before our time.

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Now, an AI system developed by MIT students Ziv Epstein and Matt Groh adds spooky figures to your photos, no reality TV show required. Called AI Spirits, it’s a website that lets you upload empty landscapes, to be haunted with humanoid shadows.

“In the world all around us, many people have lived full lives and passed on. Yet they are still with us emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually,” says Epstein. “In the business of daily life, we can forget them and only see the empty scenes all around us. AI Spirits is a visualization of saudade: the presence of absence.”

AI Spirits works so well because it places ghostly figures exactly where your brain naturally thinks they could be–on a path in the middle of a forest, rather than, say, floating randomly through the air. Technically, AI Spirits builds upon the team’s last project, dubbed Deep Angel, which could delete people from uploaded scenes. These scenes that users uploaded–5,000 in all–became fodder to train a new AI on where people would be most likely to stand in an empty frame. Mix in some generative painting to create figures from scratch–a task AI is very good at already–and the ghosts come to life.

AI is very good at stoking fear. We have apocalyptic origin stories that have set culture’s dark expectations for AI, like the Terminator, but we’ve also seen real AI write horror stories and generate nightmare imagery. (Indeed, artificial intelligence is the real monster that should keep you up at night.)

AI Spirits, for its part, is more than a spooky demo; it’s a primer on machine learning. “It helps provide some transparency into what the model is learning by showing the kinds of patterns, textures, and locations the spirits are being generated in,” Epstein says. “We want to create a conversation about how these technologies can be used and what they are learning.” Namely, how to scare you.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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