Something eerie has been brewing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and, come Halloween, it will be unleashed on the public.
In keeping with what’s become an annual tradition of unveiling odd projects around the spooky holiday, researchers at the lab have created a frightening program that will put the fate of an actual human being in the hands of people sitting behind their computer screens.
Called “BeeMe,” the Web-based social experiment will let a group of users control a character with a mission and a story line in real-time, while experiencing and seeing everything that the character sees and hears as if they’re inside the person’s body.
Think of it as a dystopian first-person video game, with a real-live human at your fingertips.
“What we hope to achieve is this smooth set of actions that the actor will perform,” said Niccolò Pescetelli, a postdoc associate at the lab and one of the project’s leads. “And the objective here is if these stream of actions are oriented and meaningful, or a bunch of random actions that don’t make sense.”
The scary part?
“Absence of personality or absence of free will,” Pescetelli said of the actor who will be at the public’s beck and call.
Here’s how it works: On Oct. 31, around 11 p.m., people can log on to the project’s website and join with others in issuing commands to the actor.
Users will get to suggest actions like opening the door, going into a room, or grabbing an object, and then they vote on those suggestions collectively, so the most popular choice is carried out.
“In BeeMe, an agent gives up their free will to save humanity — or perhaps to know whether humanity can be saved at all,” according to a description of the game’s plot line. “This brave individual will agree to let the Internet pilot their every action.”
The goal of the crowd will be to “save humanity from an evil [Artifical Intelligence].”
Because anonymous people sitting at their keyboards will be calling the shots, Pescetelli expects there will be a bit of online trolling to try to tip the narrative and get the character to do outlandish things.
But, he said, the team has put some ground rules in place to ensure the actor won’t execute any actions that could put him or her at risk, such as infringing on the person’s privacy or dignity.
“The idea is that it’s fun if they execute most of the tasks that the crowd asks them to do,” Pescetelli said. “But we don’t want to put anyone in danger.”
The aim of BeeMe, which was partly inspired by popular culture and shows like “Black Mirror,” is to open a broader discussion about privacy and ethics in “the new digital era,” according to the creators.
“The hypothesis is whether a large collection of people is able to control a complex system like a character moving along a story line in real-time,” Pescetelli said. “We hope a few hundred people will show up [on Halloween], and the game will be more fun the more people we have, and more informative from a social sciences perspective.”
This isn’t the first time the brainy folks at the Media Lab have cooked up a Halloween-themed concoction meant to scare up users online.
In 2016, the lab released the “Nightmare Machine,” a project that uses deep-learning algorithms — or artificial intelligence — to generate “zombified” portraits.
Last year, they came up with “Shelley,” a collaborative project that paired humans with deep-learning powered artificial intelligence to create horror stories online.
Pescetelli said if everything goes well on Halloween night with BeeMe, and the experiment proves popular, they plan to release the platform to a greater audience, so “everyone will be able to create an account, upload their own stories, use it to stream their own events, and share them with their friends.”
“We hope to create a community around this new form of entertainment,” he said.Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.