MIT’s Newest Creation: The Nightmare Machine

by Jay London on October 28, 2016 · 4 comments

in Arts, Design, Research, Science


A photo posted by Nightmare Machine (@nightmare_machine) on

Please note: This story links to the Nightmare Machine website, which includes a warning stating that some photos may contain scary content and may not be suitable for all users.

When it comes to holidays, MIT is known more for celebrations of its own creation, such as Pi Day and the Baker House Piano Drop. But a trio of Media Lab researchers are adding an Institute flair to this year’s Halloween season—using a fright-soliciting algorithm called the Nightmare Machine.

The Nightmare Machine uses a deep-learning algorithm created by Associate Professor Iyad Rahwan and post-doctoral researchers Pinar Yanardag and Manuel Cebrian to detect our deepest visual fears. According to its website, the Nightmare Machine takes ordinary photos of people and landmarks and uses artificial intelligence to determine how their photos would look if the people and places were “haunted.” Users can visit a dedicated voting page to help the algorithm learn which images are the scariest.

Clinton, Drumpf, the White House too, terrifyingly transformed by MIT’s ‘Nightmare Machine,’” Washington Post, Oct. 24, 2016

“We use state-of-the-art deep learning algorithms to learn what haunted houses, ghost towns or toxic cities look like,” Pinar Yanardag said. The algorithm extracts elements — such as a bruised-black palette — from these scary templates and implants them in the landmarks.

MIT Media Lab

A photo posted by Nightmare Machine (@nightmare_machine) on

The Machine’s Instagram page contains more than 100 so-called “nightmarified” images, including a darkened version of MIT’s Great Dome shadowed by an ominous black sky and a crumpling and desolate MIT Media Lab. The page is heavy on non-MIT imagery, including a distorted Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debating over a floor of skulls.

According to the Nightmare Machine website, the computer generated images are powered by deep learning algorithms with a touch of evil spirits. The website also includes a 2,000-year timeline that merges the origins of artificial intelligence and Halloween.

So what’s your take in the AI-infused imagery? Vote in the scary-or-not poll on the Nightmare Machine website then visit the algorithm’s Instagram page to view all of the nightmarified photos.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Wilson Lamb October 28, 2016 at 9:56 am

It would be nice if they could make real nightmares less scary!
So far, it looks like a monumental waste of resources and time.
Is there an undisclosed useful purpose?


Michael Hanson October 28, 2016 at 3:06 pm

@Wilson Lamb –

Sure. The authors are demonstrating their progress in a very active area of computer science research: How do we combine human judgments with deep machine learning?

In this case, the computer program is identifying features of the image without human error, and learning, based on a human judgement of whether it was “scary” or “not scary”, which features are most likely to contribute to “scariness”. It is then learning how to manipulate an image to increase “scariness”.

What is fascinating about this approach is that it does not require a piece-by-piece enumeration of the features of the image that are “scary”; rather, it is able to learn, through thousands upon thousands of observations, the inter-relationships between features.

While “scariness” may not be a very commercial application, the underlying mathematical and software models are applicable to any domain where human judgment can be used to analyze complex systems.


Picard October 28, 2016 at 7:12 pm

> “including a distorted Hillary Clinton and Donald Drumpf debating”

Drumpf? Really? Please grow up.


Jay London October 31, 2016 at 3:00 pm

Apologies, that’s been fixed. –Jay London


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