Can AI learn to scare us? With Shelley, MIT researchers aim for goosebumps


Illustration is created by Meghan Murphy,

Illustration is created by Meghan Murphy,

Just in time for Halloween, a research team from the MIT Media Lab’s Scalable Cooperation group introduces Shelley: the world’s first AI-human horror story collaboration.

Shelley is a deep-learning powered AI who was trained on over 140K horror stories on Reddit’s infamous r/nosleep subreddit. She lives on Twitter; every hour, @shelley_ai tweets out the beginning of a new horror story, ending with #yourturn to invite a human collaborator. Anyone is welcome to reply to that tweet with the next part of the story; Shelley will reply again with the next part, and so on. The results are weird, fun, and unpredictable horror stories that represent both creativity and collaboration—traits that explore the limits of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“Shelley is a combination of a multi-layer Recurrent Neural Network and an online learning algorithm that learns from crowd’s feedback over time,” explains Pinar Yanardhag, the project’s lead researcher. “The more collaboration Shelley gets from people, the more and scarier stories she will write.”

Shelley starts stories based on the AI’s own learning dataset, but she responds directly to additions to the story from human contributors—which in turn adds to her knowledge base. Each completed story is then collected on the Shelley project website.

“Shelley’s creative mind has no boundaries,” the research team says. “She writes stories about a pregnant man who woke up in a hospital, a mouth on the floor with a calm smile, an entire haunted town, a faceless man on the mirror . . . anything is possible!”

One final note on Shelley: the AI was trained on a subreddit filled with adult content, and the researchers have limited control over her—so parents beware!

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