Who Is Loab, the AI-Generated Apparition Haunting Our Timelines?

·5 min read
loab-ai-lady - Credit: Supercomposite/Twitter
loab-ai-lady - Credit: Supercomposite/Twitter

The internet comes with its own urban legends, and the scary ones are known as “creepypastas,” horror stories transformed and embedded through repetition. Among their most infamous characters is Slender Man, a tall, thin, faceless figure who menaces children (in 2014, two Wisconsin girls stabbed their friend to appease him). More recently, a hoax claimed that kids could be harmed by viewing a grotesque creature called Momo — which was really just a sculpture by Japanese artist Keisuke Aiso, who destroyed the piece after it went viral.

The latest spooky apparition is a little different: she comes not directly from a creator’s imagination but the murky waters of artificial intelligence. Her name is Loab, and a 31-year-old musician in Sweden who goes by the band name Supercomposite claims to have “discovered” her while experimenting with AI-generated images back in April.

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In a private message, Supercomposite explains that she wasn’t trying to illustrate a woman’s face, or anything in particular. “I was just exploring what happens with negative prompt weights,” she says, in which a program is instructed to render the farthest opposite of the user’s text input. At the outset, the AI hobbyist decided to ask for the inverse of Marlon Brando, which produced what looked like a garbled tech company logo. “I have no idea why I tried to do the opposite of Brando,” Supercomposite says. Next, she tried to reverse the process, but instead of Marlon Brando, she got unnerving portraits of a worn-down woman.

Initially, Supercomposite says, “I thought it would be fun to do a chain of opposites. Do the opposite of Brando and then do the opposite of that result.” Once the striking woman emerged, however — and gained the nickname Loab from a word that appeared on what resembled an album cover — she became the focus of the process. Supercomposite and her friend (an artist with the Twitter handle @ai_curio) were “enchanted” by Loab and grew increasingly fascinated with how the system continued to insert her in successive visuals, some of them frighteningly intense and gory. Even when they combined pictures over and over in such a way to disintegrate her likeness, the system would eventually put her back together again. As @ai_curio put it, she’s an “anomaly in latent space that infects images.”

The pair have declined to say what kind of generator they’re using, though many of them seem capable of puzzling outcomes like Loab. An Imgur user recently shared images of a “default woman” often spawned by the program Midjourney. Back in June, comedian Guy Kelly stumbled upon a nude, goblinesque form by requesting “Crungus” from Craiyon (formerly DALL-E Mini), yet this monster had no clear origin in the available Google results for the term, raising the possibility that the AI tool had simply invented it. Out of curiosity, I fed the prompt “Loab” into Craiyon, which returned what looked like photos of a rock star and/or band.

Not everyone is happy about phenomena like Loab. On Twitter, one critic accused Supercomposite of “stigmatizing disability,” while another noted that the association of this face with horror imagery is a reflection of how our culture mistreats those deemed less attractive. This genre of art is ethically fraught in itself, and even before Loab showed up on social media, @ai_curio had announced that they wouldn’t answer questions around this discourse after someone sent their boyfriend disturbing gore.

Supercomposite says that detractors are “right to be critical of the AI” where Loab is concerned. “Clearly it’s made an association it shouldn’t have,” she notes. “I think some are misinterpreting my process in interrogating the AI vs. the training that other people did. I also think some people are being very stupid and making fun of how Loab looks in the first pictures, like that’s the horror show. That’s not the point at all, and it bums me out. She looks like an average person to me, just really sad.”

Of course, since we can’t identify the exact reason Loab came into being and persists across so many recalibrated images, we’re left to speculate on her meaning. A familial interpretation is the simplest: Loab is periodically represented as a mother, and the extent to which she’s perceived as scary may speak to a subconscious fear of our moms. Who knows — she could have an equally disconcerting husband out there. But I’m no psychiatrist, and to me she’ll remain a made-up lady in the computer. If only so I can avoid having nightmares.

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