An Artificial Intelligence Bot Writes Stories of the Macabre - Atlas Obscura
Join us on an Atlas Obscura Trip in 2019 »

An Artificial Intelligence Bot Writes Stories of the Macabre

“Shelley” conjures tales of disembodied mouths, surprise male pregnancies, and a house full of dolls.

"Shelley" is an artificial intelligence bot who writes stories inspired by a subreddit of aspiring horror writers.
“Shelley” is an artificial intelligence bot who writes stories inspired by a subreddit of aspiring horror writers. Public Domain

Machines are taking over jobs, taking over lives, and just plain taking over. This common fear is an inspiration for a new AI bot created by the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), nicknamed “Shelley.” But, rather than being part of that particular horror story, “she” is writing her own scary stories. Named for the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who penned Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, Shelley is an AI system that feeds on the horrors of other writers. “Nowadays, nothing seems to frighten humanity more than runaway intelligent machines,” MIT research scientist Manuel Cebrian writes in an email, citing concerns from mass unemployment all the way through to the annihilation of the human race. “We wanted to playfully commemorate humanity’s fear of AI.”

Shelley has been trained on more than 140,000 horror stories posted on Reddit’s r/nosleep subreddit (thread titles include “I think someone I’m Catfishing is a Serial killer”). She “exists” on Twitter, where, every hour, she starts a new story, to which readers are encouraged to contribute. By drawing on the stories of others, she is able to conjure stereotypically terrifying images—claws brushing against one’s ankles, a creepy doll, a mysterious figure in a black trench coat. But, says Pinar Yanardag, a postdoctoral researcher at the Media Lab, she is unfettered by what is possible, or even imaginable. She has generated stories about disembodied mouths and, on the flip-side, a smiling “thing” with no eyes, no nose—and no mouth. “We expect Shelley to inspire people to write the weirdest and scariest horror stories ever put together.”

Human authors have nothing to fear at the moment, says associate professor Iyad Rahwan. “Algorithms are still not very good at generating complex narrative.” While human creativity appears to be infinite, machines are limited by what we can teach them, at least for now. “If we can build machines that understand the very essence of human experience, we would have bigger problems than simply losing jobs in creative writing,” he adds. Shelley’s stories are led by the cues fed to her, and now there are tales about zombies, vampires, and aliens in the pipeline. But so far, Shelley’s been curiously silent on one increasingly common horror trope, one that she might have an unusual take on: the singularity.