The bizarre true story of The Nightmare Woman who haunts the internet

It’s out there somewhere, lurking in a parallel universe of possibilities. All you have to do to summon her is type the right prompt into an AI image generator.

Like a digital spell, the words will reveal the haunting face of a middle-aged woman with dull eyes, a blank stare and an eerie grimace.

Her name is Loab (pronounced like ‘lobe’), and she was “discovered” by a Swedish artist who goes by the name Supercomposite on Twitter.

Supercomposite is among the first wave of modern creators to explore the realms of text-to-image AI generators. Last year, while experimenting with negative suggestions (which ask machine learning algorithms to find the opposite extreme of something), the artist came across a creepy face.

When Supercomposite prompted again, they said the same woman came back, this time next to the word “loab.”

“AI made her easier than most celebrities. Her presence is persistent and haunts every image she touches,” Supercomposite explained on Twitter in a September 2022 thread about Loab’s discovery.

“Sit down. This is a true horror story and veers sharply to the macabre.”

With a hook like that, it’s no wonder Loab has taken the internet by storm. This mysterious woman’s image is now so well known that she even has a her own Wikipedia page of her.

Part of the mystery of Loab is what it stands for. The figure of Loab has become a kind of modern “tronie”, a type of art form from the Dutch Golden Age that exaggerates the expression of a face one who it does not represent a person but an idea.

Loab’s allegory is just a little more terrifying than, To saysubject of the most famous titled thrones Girl With A Pearl Earring. More profoundly, it wasn’t made by a human artist who can tell us more about the idea they were trying to depict.

Of the hundreds of iterations of Loab that Supercomposite has built, many features dismembered or screaming children on background. Some of the AI-generated images were so grotesque that the artist decided not to share them publicly.

“I was tearing Loab apart and putting it back together. It’s an emerging island in latent space that we don’t know how to locate with text queries.” he wrote the artist on Twitter.

“Sooner or later it will find everyone. You just have to know where to look”, Supercomposite added.

Loab has captured the world’s attention for more than just his nightmarish qualities. Ripped from the abyss through what Supercomposite calls a “emerging statistical incident”the creepy woman represents a new era of creativity that we may or may not be ready for.

Brendan Murphy, a photographer and digital media lecturer at Central Queensland University in Australia, spends much of his free time thinking about the future of artificial intelligence and sampling image and text generators.

With technology recently exploding, he thinks the art world is headed for a paradigm shift, just like when photography first arrived on the scene in the early 1800s.

Today, when Murphy uses artificial intelligence to make art, he thinks of it as landscape photography, wandering around a place and looking for interesting things to capture. Only, in this case, the landscape she’s exploring is a kind of parallel universe of human art.

After all, AI generators are trained in human knowledge, culture, and artistic traditions, which means we could conceivably make anything they create.

These unfulfilled possibilities are now out there for people to find, and Murphy and Supercomposite are among the first to join the hunt.

“There are things that you see that interest you, that you really want to amplify, and you really want to go in that direction,” Murphy explained to ScienceAlert in 2022.

“There’s no reason to go down these paths. And there are probably really good reasons why people have never gone down these paths. Because it’s probably never going to impress anyone or sell anything.”

That doesn’t mean that using AI to make art is frivolous. Instead, Murphy said AI is a tool artists can use to further their art practices. And every once in a while a precious figure like Loab emerges from the abyss.

“I think the thing about Loab is, it’s a great story. It’s not just the technology. It’s looking at what drives the technology. It’s looking at the possibilities of the technology,” he explained.

“And I think it’s great. I think it’s a valid piece of art. Much more valid than just creating a particular AI image. There’s a lot of thought, a lot of experimentation, a lot of iterations.”

Anne Ploin, a digital sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute who studies the potential impact of machine learning on creative work, shares a similar view.

“AI models can extrapolate in unexpected ways [and] draw attention to a completely unknown factor in a certain style of painting,” Ploin said last year.

“But machine learning models aren’t autonomous. They won’t create new art movements on their own.”

Murphy and other art experts think it’s doubtful that AI will erase human creativity, at least not entirely. Art, after all, only exists if humans appreciate it, and as a species, we tend to be quite prejudiced about our abilities.

Going forward, AI-generated artwork can prompt us to question artistic traditions and explore our own emotional reactions to images, Murphy said.

But we are entering a world where many writing and painting services could conceivably become redundant, erasing the work of many ghostwriters, illustrators, designers and photographers.

The explosion of AI-generated art in recent months has sparked concerns that algorithms are robbing artists by replicating their distinct styles.

The best human artists will no doubt continue to compete with AI, and Murphy suspects it will be those creators who lean into their humanity who will be the most successful in the future.

A tangible and real public face and identity may be more crucial than ever for artists. “No matter how apps like Lensa shake up the way art is created, the artist’s personality remains an important context for their work,” Murphy wrote in The Conversation.

The now famous ChatGPT is an AI-based text generator that was publicly released in November 2022. Its name stands for Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer, with an engine based on evaluating the probability that certain words follow each other in a block of text, not unlike a supercharged version of your phone’s predictive text feature.

Like Loab, there may seem to be a ghostly presence to the program’s responses that test the boundaries of human knowledge and creativity. Though it doesn’t take long for the veneer to fall off, exposing its wiring like a dice-rolling “parrot” that bets on producing the right strings of words to fool us.

Any wisdom it provides is still left for us to sort through and judge. When asked how AI is changing art, ChatGPT seems to agree with Murphy:

AI is changing the way art is created, perceived, and experienced. AI algorithms can be used to generate new art forms, such as music, poetry, and visual art. These algorithms can also be used to analyze and interpret existing works of art in new and interesting ways. In addition, AI technology is used to create interactive art installations and performances that respond to and engage viewers in real time. Overall, AI enables artists to create and explore new forms of expression, and for the public to experience art in new and exciting ways.”

The boundaries of artistic practice are expanding and Loab is just the beginning.

An earlier version of this article was published in December 2022.

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