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Loab: the AI cryptid for our age?

Pop Culture

Loab: the AI cryptid for our age?

Tracking the ghost in the machines.

The internet is haunted, apparently, by what’s become known as the first AI-art cryptid. Perhaps you saw an ominous retweet about her appearance last fall — yes, it’s a “she” — or you heard about it from a friend who’s nervous about the dangers lurking in artificial intelligence. As a podcaster who’s regularly steeped in cryptid lore, and a professional artist surrounded by the recent panic over AI art programs stealing images, styles, and jobs from human artists, tales of Loab immediately caught my interest.

According to her Twitter account, under the handle “Supercomposite,” Swedish musician and digital artist Steph Swanson first “discovered” Loab while experimenting with negative prompts on an AI art generator. As the term implies, negative prompting involves asking an AI program to generate the opposite (but not really — more on this later) of a phrase or image. Swanson did not specify which AI she used, in order to avoid unintentional advertising, but stated she asked it to show her the opposite of “Brando.”

Loab

The result was a bland image resembling a logo with a skyline and the letters “DIGITA PNTICS.” When she fed in the phrase “DIGITA PNTICS skyline logo” as a negative prompt, wondering if the opposite of her initial opposite would resemble actor Marlon Brando, the AI instead created images that appeared to be slightly different portraits of the same sullen, dark-eyed, red-cheeked woman. One of the four images had the letters “LOAB” in the background, which Swanson decided should be this woman’s name.

These initial images don’t really strike me as horrific, but they have the same creepy factor that’s in many AI images — the uncanny valley, plus a bit of polished disfigurement. Loab does not look fully human, but she appears to be more lifelike than a puppet or cartoon image. As an artist specializing in caricature and always on the lookout for good photo sources, I also could swear I recognized a few strains of women in the media recently. Melania Trump’s resting First Lady face mixed with a hint of Nancy Pelosi’s features, as well as shades of every serious-looking supermodel and distraught woman photographed at the scene of a disaster.

That is to say, this is exactly what I’d expect an algorithm to grab if it were piecing together some imaginary woman from images spread across the recent internet. Loab also reminded me of Lady Elaine Fairchilde from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a puppet with similarly unhealthy red cheeks whom I’d always been slightly creeped out by.

The image also harkened back to a trope in many ghost stories. Sad, possibly malevolent mysterious female figures like Bloody Mary or La Llorona predate the internet’s existence by many, many years. The “I dare you” element present in the Bloody Mary stories was also on the Twitter thread, as many later images of Loab that Swanson posted were covered by a warning that the author flagged the images as “sensitive content,” so you had to choose to click and reveal it.

The blood, gore and child dismemberment Swanson warned about seemed a bit overstated once I clicked through, though. The color red was present, but it looked more like paint and confetti on poorly-made puppets. The scenes weren’t gory or disturbing, unless maybe you were primed to see them as such.

I lack the computer engineering expertise to fully explain how any AI art generator locked onto the imagery it did when Swanson did her initial search, but Youtuber FranktheTank Gaming did a two-part debunker video discussing Loab and some of the finer points of negative prompting. In short, true randomness doesn’t exist in computing, so what seems like an astounding coincidence (Loab showing up again and again in “random” prompting) really is predictable.

And AI doesn’t think of opposites the way we do. Asking an AI for the opposite of blue water will not generate red water — it skips around and finds prompts that are the furthest from things associated with that prompt. The AI can, however, “see” the image of Loab and understand that when it’s crossbred with another image, whatever it brings back should have that context. And once she appeared, Loab was crossbred with enthusiasm.

If Swanson had called it a day after generating those four images, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now. But, intrigued by the woman she’d uncovered in the ethereal halls of AI’s dreamspace, Swanson continued on, hybridizing the initial images of Loab with other prompts, including an AI-generated image of an angelic hallway.

The new images (or at least a good amount of them) contained a figure recognizable as some version of Loab. While Swanson maintained that she was not seeing anything supernatural in this phenomenon, she found it peculiar and significant. Loab was soon transformed into a blue alien from James Cameron’s Avatar, a pride icon, and a beekeeper. Some of the resulting offspring were quirky, and many were dark and reminiscent of horror imagery.

“Through some kind of emergent statistical accident, something about this woman is adjacent to extremely gory and macabre imagery in the distribution of the AI’s world knowledge,” Swanson tweeted on September 6, 2022.

Others have taken up the story and run with it, claiming Loab’s appearance was evidence of a haunted “abyss of latent space” that’s sprung up in AI, something we humans can only guess at, and we do so at our peril. Was Loab really a Cassandra, a warning AI is trying to convey to mankind (subtly, and ambiguously if so) that continuing to push the boundaries between human and artificial thought is dangerous territory? Loab’s foreboding gaze was seen by a few as akin to a “Here be dragons” scroll written on an ancient map. Go no further, humanity, screeches the ghost in the machine.

Swanson herself invoked the map metaphor in her commentary when she characterized the AI as “running away” from logos and looking for images, like realistic faces, that were the opposite of the logo she’d fed it as a negative prompt. “So no matter what,” she said, “you are going to end up at the edge of the map. And Loab is the last face you see before you fall off the edge.”

Living online, Loab is uniquely sensitive to a cryptid version of the Observer Effect. Eager gatherings of squatchers camping and taking long walks in the Pacific Northwest feed into Bigfoot lore, just as the plaques, parades, souvenirs, and sighting boards help boost the signal for lake monsters or regional cryptids all over the United States. In Loab’s case, the AI that created her in the first place draws upon what exists online to be sifted through, and by searching for her, uploading images, and writing articles on her uncanny existence, we’re all dumping more into that content pool and, in effect, shaping and solidifying her.

Brian Bucklew commented on Twitter in November 2022 that “what really f*cks me about loab was she was a transient locality that later versions [of the AI] would have erased as noise; but we’ve created a permanent loab, engraving it permanently as the content we create about her is backfed into new training; observing her made her real.”

There’s also the interplay (unwitting or intentional) of the human being involved. As you train an algorithm, it also trains you. Swanson was obviously motivated to get what she was initially intrigued by — the more gruesome images of Loab, the better. Whether or not she consciously skewed her inputs to chase this AI cryptid or did so unknowingly, like a keyboard ideomotor effect, I don’t know.

Slender Man might be the closest kin to Loab, though we know he sprang from an author’s mind purposefully, as a Creepypasta tale. One could argue that Loab had the same authorial origin, as Swanson claimed to have first found her in April but waited until September to compose a very long Tweet thread featuring thoughtful commentary, to go with a few dozen images she chose. A September release of this tale is pretty well-timed to go viral during the Halloween season.

“Take a seat, this is a true horror story,” Swanson advises readers in her first Loab Tweet.

Loab: the AI cryptid for our age?

Whether Loab began as a story, a prank, a misunderstanding, or some odd interpretation of visual data (by either a human or an AI), she would indeed have some origin overlap with many other well-known cryptids. So welcome to the club, Loab! It’s a shame there’s no regional lake or forested area you came from in the real meat-space that can benefit from selling your souvenirs.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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