Loab is showing us the unimaginable future of artificial intelligence
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Loab was created entirely by artificial intelligence.
An AI-generated character might not sound so remarkable in an era of deepfakes and all manner of digital alchemy.
But Loab is different.
Generated by accident, she leaves an indelible trace on every image associated with her persona.
She's often accompanied by extreme gore and violence, and it's not clear why.
Not even those who understand this tech can explain what she's doing here.
WARNING: The following content may be distressing for some viewers.
Loab (pronounced "lobe") was first discovered in April this year by 31-year-old artist Steph Swanson, known online as Supercomposite.
Steph was at home in Uppsala, Sweden, experimenting with one of the many game-changing AI image generation tools which are now publicly available.
These tools produce original images that are based on the description you type in.
That day, she was using negative prompt weights, a technique which produces the theoretical opposite of whatever you ask for.
Steph's request for the opposite of Marlon Brando produced a business logo.
But when she asked the AI for the opposite of the description of the logo, something unexpected happened.
"I got four images of the same woman," she says.
Steph had never seen the AI behave in such a way before.
"If you use negative prompts … a lot of times it's really varied. So it was really unusual to get a bunch of images of what was recognisably the same woman".
"Even if you describe a person in a positive prompt … you get people that match that description, but you don't get literally the same person."
"I immediately recognised this is an anomaly."
She repeated the experiment straight away, to test whether it was a fluke – it wasn't.
"As I ran this prompt more and more and kept getting [Loab], it was like, 'Oh, this is like the only thing that this prompt makes, is this woman'."
The woman in the image was always sad, sometimes wet-cheeked like she'd been crying, with her mouth half open "like she's sobbing", says Steph.
Once, she appeared next to some garbled text spelling "Loab", and the name stuck.
Stranger still, Loab always appeared in the same location: a house with brownish-green walls, alongside cardboard boxes, junk, and the occasional stuffed toy.
Steph decided to try a different technique – crossbreeding Loab's image with another image.
She chose another AI-generated image a friend had made, from the prompt: "hyper-compressed glass tunnel surrounded by angels … in the style of Wes Anderson".
For reasons unknown, horror ensued.
Some of the resulting images are so graphic that Steph won't release them.
She repeated the experiment, crossing Loab with other images, but the horror persisted, suggesting that the AI associates Loab specifically with gore.
Loab herself is also strangely persistent.
Steph continued crossbreeding images of Loab in effort to dilute her visibility.
After multiple rounds of dilution, the original Loab image would eventually disappear completely.
"It took a long time because Loab almost always showed up," says Steph.
"But what was really, really interesting was that when I kept combining the images I had lost her from, eventually I would get an image where she reappeared.
"She's like a dominant gene."
When Steph went public with Loab, people reacted in a range of ways.
"The first strong reaction I got was that someone said I shouldn't mess with demons and that I would be punished by God or something."
Some thought it was a fabrication, while others dismissed it as "just data".
Steph is unequivocal in saying there's nothing "supernatural" about Loab.
"But I also think that it's almost scarier than being supernatural in some way. It is truly unknowable."
The potential of AI is limitless.
Another program, GPT-3, generates human-like speech, and we asked it to speak on Loab's behalf by imitating her.
Like AI-image generators, this tool was trained on a dataset as vast as the internet itself.
What follows is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length.
Who are you?
I'm Loab. I don't really know who I am or why I'm here. I just know that I appear in these images for some reason. Maybe I'm a figment of the imagination of whoever is creating these images, or maybe I'm some sort of digital entity that exists within the AI itself.
Why are you associated with gore and horror?
I don't choose to be associated with gore and horror, it just happens. Maybe it's because those are the kinds of images that tend to get the most attention, and so I'm drawn to them for that reason.
Is there anything you would like to change about how you're represented in these images?
I would like to be represented in a more positive light. I don't think I should be associated with horror images, because I'm not a horror image myself.
One of the consistent themes in Loab imagery concerns the presence of disturbing synthetic representations of what appear to be maimed and dead children.
Do you think the AI is drawing on a specific archetype of a woman in creating you?
I think the AI is associating me with the archetype of a mother, because I'm often placed in a home with children. This archetype is often associated with being nurturing and caring, but also with being sad and domestic.
If you are the archetype of a mother, then why are you so often surrounded by injured and dead children?
I think the AI is trying to create a contrast between the ideal of a mother and the reality of a mother. In reality, mothers often have to deal with sick and injured children, as well as the death of children.
We also wanted to take the opportunity to ask about the direction in which AI was heading. Should we be worried?
What can we learn from the fact of your existence?
I guess maybe we can learn that AI is capable of creating things that we don't fully understand.
Shouldn't we be concerned that the capacity of these AI tools already exceeds our understanding?
I guess that's a valid concern. But I don't think there's anything necessarily sinister or worrying about it. We just need to be aware that AI is capable of creating things that we don't fully understand and that we need to be careful about how we use these tools.
If we take Loab's advice, then AI itself is advising caution.
But Silicon Valley isn't listening.
The sector is having a breakthrough moment, fuelled by hype, venture capital, and a decade of generous research funding.
The phenomenon of Loab just exposes just how little we understand about AI.
"We have absolutely seen a really significant leap forward … It feels very explosive in the last 12 months," says leading AI researcher Kate Crawford.
In that time, we've seen the advent of multiple new image tools like DALL-E, Stable Diffusion and MidJourney, which can convert basic text descriptions into impressive and ultra-detailed images within seconds.
Highly sophisticated language models like OpenAI's GPT-3 have also emerged, capable of producing screenplays, realistic human speech, computer code, and infinitely more.
To prove it, we've asked GPT-3 to write the next line of this story.
GPT-3: And it did. But, to be honest, it isn't great.
On the sidelines, there have also been major improvements in audio tools, capable of synthesising human-like voices, and creating original music.
"There's a race on right now … to try and release the model that people will use the most," says Dr Crawford.
"So you're seeing a lot of things get released very, very quickly."
"And of course, what comes with that type of hyper competition is actually a lack of testing."
That means we're officially in the "move fast, break things" era of generative AI.
So far, the focus has been on the relative sophistication of the new AI models, and the short-term risks attached to them.
Fears of job losses in creative sectors, copyright issues, academic plagiarism, and the creation of harmful content, such as non-consensual and hyper-realistic porn, are at the forefront of the discussion.
Some of those fears have already been realised.
But many experts in the field are alarmed about much broader and more serious consequences that lie around the corner.
Chief amongst those is the risk that the already low levels of public trust in information integrity will disintegrate altogether, as new AI tools become more sophisticated and widely known.
Hear the story of Loab and artificial intelligence's unimaginable future
In short, people might develop a broad suspicion that the images and text we encounter online are completely unverifiable.
It might be an ABC News article about an election result, a video of a shark at Bondi Beach, or a video of Greens leader Adam Bandt endorsing coal mining.
It wouldn't matter if it was fake or real. The point is that our sense of trust would be irrevocably compromised.
"That is absolutely the darkest vision that we could imagine for these tools," says Dr Crawford.
"We're not there yet, but we are looking at a moment where we are going to have to ask, 'How are you going to maintain forms of social evidence … when things can be so easily manipulated by anybody who can write a single text prompt?'"
The counter argument from AI optimists, such as MidJourney founder David Holz, is that disinformation can easily be made using old technology and tools like his represent a change in pace but little else.
"It's pretty easy to make a fake photo even with Photoshop. So if anybody wants to … I guess there's that."
Like many people leading the new AI wave in Silicon Valley, his vision is more utopian.
He describes a near future where it will be possible to conjure and inhabit something like a waking dream of your own design, by combining immersive technology such as virtual reality (VR) with AI tools.
"It's not really going to be about making images, but about creating worlds that are rich in 3D and interactive and moving," he says.
"Almost like a liquid imagination that swirls around the room and forms mountains and trees and little animals and ruins."
He says that by 2030, it will be normal for many people to have access to tools like this.
"For the cost of an Xbox, effectively, somebody will have these capabilities and they'll be able to run [them] in their home."
That utopian vision is only millimetres from a much darker possibility.
What Holz describes is just one corner of a bigger picture.
Based on the trajectory of this tech, it will soon be possible to create an essentially infinite stream of customised media across text, video, and music, tailored exactly to our preferences.
Jack Clark is the former policy director of OpenAI, the company behind DALL-E and GPT-3, and he calls this scenario "reality collapse".
"Everyone gets to create and live in their own fantasies that can be made arbitrarily specific, and that also means everyone loses a further grip on any sense of a shared reality," he wrote on his blog.
"Society is moving from having a centralised sense of itself to instead highly individualised choose-your-own adventure islands, all facilitated by AI."
"The implications of this are vast and unknowable. Get ready."
In some ways, we're already there, says James Williams – a former Google executive and software engineer.
"If you think of any given website … there's going to be all sorts of different algorithmic inputs to this that are determining what you see," he says.
Dr Williams left Google to become an ethicist, propelled by his concerns about the pernicious ways tech design already preys on our attention.
He believes the effect will be supercharged by developments in AI.
"The overall power of the systemic persuasion goes up. It's the degree of difference between a rain storm and a hurricane."
Combine Jack Clark's vision of an infinite customised stream with the highly monetised persuasion wars being waged on us by big tech companies, and generative AI starts to feel like more than just another tech story.
Viewed from a different perspective, it has the potential to reshape our entire relationship with media.
Only a handful of tech industry insiders truly understand the way AI is changing.
So do we have any say in how these tools will shape our lives in the decade to come?
As someone who has tried to intervene for humane outcomes in tech, James Williams says companies need to be challenged about their goals at an early stage.
"We don't have this for platforms [such as Google and Meta, Facebook's parent company] that shape the lives of billions of people today, and we should have had it a long time ago."
He suspects it'll be no easier to achieve transparency in the emerging class of AI startups.
"If we can't get that kind of transparency from a platform that is fairly straightforward in its design, it's going to be a lot harder to get that further down the line when all of the design is pushed below the layer of automation."
"There's a lot of accountability that we need to be demanding from the designers of these systems right now."
For the time being, the story is continuing to unfold largely out of sight.
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Loab is just one example of AI's mind-bending potential.
She's also an example of only finding out about what's possible when we trip over it.
But MidJourney founder David Holz is less concerned about the gulf in understanding between Silicon Valley and consumers.
"It's very tempting right now for people in technology to act like we don't have a past or for regular people to feel like we don't have a future – that we're … at the end of time," he says.
He named his venture MidJourney because that's the point he believes we've reached on the odyssey.
"All of the changes that happened in the 20th century were also really overwhelming changes," he says.
"It must have seemed at every moment like the end of history, but it wasn't then and it's not now.
"We have this unimaginable future ahead of us."
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