A.I. 'nightmare machine' knows what scares you

The idea of artificial intelligence (AI) — autonomous computers that can learn independently — makes some people extremely uneasy, regardless of what the computers in question might be doing.

Those individuals probably wouldn't find it reassuring to hear that a group of researchers is deliberately training computers to get better at scaring people witless.

The project, appropriately enough, is named "Nightmare Machine." Digital innovators in the U.S. and Australia partnered to create an algorithm that would enable a computer to understand what makes certain images frightening, and then use that data to transform any photo, no matter how harmless-looking, into the stuff of nightmares. [5 Intriguing Uses for Artificial Intelligence (That Aren't Killer Robots)]

Images created by Nightmare Machine are unsettling, to say the least. Iconic buildings from around the world appear eroded and distorted within shadowy settings or amid charred and smoldering landscapes, glimpsed through what appears to be murky, polluted water or toxic gas clouds.

Nightmare Machine's faces are equally disturbing. Some of the subjects are almost abstract, but subtle — creepy suggestions of hollow eyes, bloody shadows and decaying flesh still cause unease. Even the lovable Muppet Kermit the Frog emerges from the process as a zombie-like creature that would terrify toddlers — and adults, too.