Artificial ‘Intelligence’ Turning Brains to Mush on YouTube

Algorithmic cartoons signal fresh horrors for human culture.

From “Superheroes BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song NurseryRhyme Education Learning Video” YouTube

As the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre recently said in a lecture given at the University of Notre Dame, “The mind is mindless without the imagination.” And even though his subject was the grammar of morality, his pithy line prompts us to picture a “mindless mind” completely devoid of imagination. Something the exact opposite of ourselves: an anti-mind as alien in its amorality as it is dizzying in its irrationality. A sort of embodied void. And if with our human brains, constructed as they are to find rhythms and project patterns onto the random, and with our human souls, attuned to resonate with transcendent order, we’re unable to envision what an imagination-less non-mind would truly be, we can simply turn to YouTube.

Stories about the horrors of YouTube’s algorithm-generated childrens videos are beginning to make the rounds, and they’re just as frightening as everyone contends. On his blog earlier this month, TAC’s Rod Dreher described these videos as “science fiction nightmare come true.” Writer and artist James Bridle wrote about them in a long introductory piece on Medium saying, “Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.”

So what exactly are these videos? Their main content components are created by bots and/or by humans using algorithms dictated by popular and seemingly anodyne keywords like “Spiderman” “educational,” “baby,” “colors.” Many are harmless and nonsensical, but the ones that have drawn the most outrage show familiar children’s characters ranging from superheroes to cartoon icons like Mickey Mouse engaging in violent, macabre activities. There’s “Peppa Pig” being tortured at the dentist. There’s the Hulk being attacked by a zombie, and then Hulk-the-zombie biting “Frozen’s” Elsa on the neck, and so on.

If you need convincing with your own eyes, then watch this gem, called “Superheroes BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song NurseryRhyme Education Learning Video.” A highlight: Hulk and Spiderman, sporting gargantuan Cupie doll heads, watch from a distance while the Grim Reaper from the movie “Scream,” the Joker, Venom, and a maniacal hobo clown dance menacingly around comic and cartoon characters that they’ve buried up to their necks.

Furthermore, algorithms aren’t just used to create the videos, they are used for machine learning (read: Artificial Intelligence or AI) to game the mathematical formulas that YouTube uses to filter and push the content in front of your kids. Even though YouTube’s sorting software is proprietary and opaque, it’s fairly obvious from the sheer volume of these disturbing videos that YouTube itself isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong. They’re simply being flooded with content at a level that boggles the mind, much of it created to either skirt or manipulate YouTube’s filters.

Not surprisingly, these grotesqueries are garnering tens of millions of clicks and generate countless advertising dollars for their makers. Parents, trusting that YouTube’s content filter will keep their children from seeing inappropriate content, will turn on a YouTube channel and keep it on autoplay, with one video following another non-stop. It might start off innocent enough but after the loop is engaged, darker videos begin to seep in when mom is or is not in the room to see.

After news of these videos began filtering through the press, YouTube promised to escalate its review policy in order to clamp down on the inappropriate content. But given the scale of the machine it created, this seems like a daunting, if not unachievable task.

“Fun Superheroes Animals Zombies Attacks Spiderman Frozen Elsa Vs Venom Joker Superheroes Cartoon” Credit: YouTube

It’s not entirely restricted to YouTube, either. As parents imbue ever greater trust in tech companies to filter, organize, and arrange content, those same companies have been relinquishing more and more human oversight to machine-learning algorithmic software. As Will Ormeus writes in Slate, a very important trade-off is made when companies choose ease over more direct control. Ormeus explains that, “Automation brings huge advantages of scale, speed, and price: We now have virtually endless content and information at our fingertips, all organized for us according to (some computer program’s notion of) our personal needs, interests, and tastes. Google, Facebook, Spotify, Amazon, Netflix: All have taken tasks once done by humans (librarians, scrapbookers, DJs, retail clerks, video-store managers—and, let’s not forget, advertising salespeople)—and found ways to do them automatically, instantly, and at close to zero marginal cost. As a result, they’re taking over the world, and making enormous profits in the process.”

Ormeus’s disturbing rendering of how an artificial intelligence can create and then promote online content suggests an easy solution. Perhaps we simply tweak the algorithms in order to secure more desirable results. But this is easier said than done. Platforms like YouTube are massive, and the purpose of a recommendation algorithm is to sift through unimaginable amounts of data using keywords and phrases in order to customize content. Putting a human finger on the scale to tip it in a certain direction might work if not for two things: the presence of bots tipping the scale in the other direction (i.e. in the direction of chaos) and the proprietary opacity of the algorithms themselves. As James Bridle writes, “A huge number of these videos are essentially created by bots and viewed by bots, and even commented on by bots. That is a whole strange world in and of itself.”

But the world gets stranger, and more uncertain still. What should give us most pause is that our children’s thoughts will come to mimic the incoherence of artificial intelligence. The “intelligence” of the algorithm doesn’t have a mind. It has no values and represents no ethos beyond the constant churning out of content. As algorithms and machine learning come to control more and more of our daily lives, from how movies are made to the medical treatment you receive, the role of the human mind in the running of society will become superfluous—a vestigial appendage. And filling the void that it once occupied will come more of the moral and intellectual incoherence that we see in these absurd YouTube videos.

This is our first intimate encounter with cybernetic intelligence of any significance. It’s our first real exposure to artificial creativity where and when it counts. This isn’t a randomly generated song or art created in a lab as a prototype of what artificial intelligence might someday be able to “achieve.” This is artificially created culture where it matters most, where the minds of our children are themselves being formed within the imagination-less void of an algorithmic feedback loop. And the effects are already discernible. As one concerned mother reports on Reddit, her child was actually beginning to imitate the often odd, even demented speech patterns in the videos. Our children and the algorithm are echoing mindlessness.

The violence in these videos are actually the least troubling thing about them. Stories intended specifically for children have since time immemorial often been lurid expressions of collective wisdom. Just go back and read Snow White in the original German if you need proof. But fairytales and folklore are in many ways the exact opposite of AI-generated videos. In the surreal violence of myth is the distillation of our collective wisdom as a human race, developed through eons of lived experience in the world. If anything, they’re the very embodiment of coherency. But AI is the inverse of this, and in many instances we degrade ourselves by engaging with it. As Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not A Gadget:

The same ambiguity that motivated dubious academic AI projects in the past has been repackaged as mass culture today. Did that search engine really know what you want, or are you playing along, lowering your standards to make it seem clever? While it’s to be expected that the human perspective will be changed by encounters with profound new technologies, the exercise of treating machine intelligence as real requires people to reduce their mooring to reality.

But the same logic, both economic and moral, that animates the creation of these videos doesn’t seem to be abating any time soon. We have a future to look forward to in which our creative consumption, our entire lives, will be organized to keep us circling around the nihilistic void of the algorithm, mimicking it as it mimics us.

For now this is happening with children’s videos on YouTube.

Artists and philosophers have seen this coming. Perhaps the most intriguing example is the early writing of Thomas Pynchon, where disgust at an ever more permeable boundary between the animate and inanimate is complicated by something akin to awe. In his first novel, V., he has a character named Benny Profane interact with an object called SHROUD (Synthetic Human, Radiation Output Determined), a cyborg comprised of robotic elements, synthetic humanoid skin, and an actual human skeleton. In their conversation, they make reference to SHOCK (Synthetic Human Object, Casualty Kinematics), a synthetic human body made to asses crash trauma. SHROUD tells Benny that everyone will be like SHOCK and him someday:

After a while he got up and went over to SHROUD. “What do you mean, we’ll be like you and SHOCK someday? You mean dead?”

Am I dead? If I am then that’s what I mean.

“If you aren’t then what are you?”

Nearly what you are. None of you have very far to go.

“I don’t understand.”

So I see. But you’re not alone. That’s a comfort isn’t it?

It would take a book all of its own to unpack the complexity of Pynchon’s thoughts on cybernetics and the organic/inorganic split, but suffice to say he sensed the impending dehumanization which inevitably springs from the blending of the two in a bid to control the bodies and minds of the masses with technology. Pynchon emphasized entropy in his work. His books resonate with the empty maniacal laughter of the Joker figure in the “buried alive” video on YouTube. A simulacrum of delight terrifying to anyone whose mind hasn’t already been ground to mush by an algorithm. It isn’t so much the content of the videos that should disturb us, but their utter meaninglessness. An imagination without mind whose continued existence depends on the deterioration of our own.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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14 Responses to Artificial ‘Intelligence’ Turning Brains to Mush on YouTube

  1. Brian Villanueva says:

    I wonder what Neil Postman would say about this? Amusing ourselves to death? Literally.

    The little “I’m not a robot” box on this page is also rather ironic.

  2. polistra says:

    Obviously these cartoons are meeting a need.

    The best answer is to fund and support the quality alternative. Make cartoons using unbowdlerized Grimm or HC Andersen texts, or the juicy parts of the Old Testament, or Eskimo myths as told by Franz Boas.

    You want torture and depravity with moral significance? Eskimos got you covered.

  3. John says:

    Funny and telling – the video was removed by the person who posted it.

    I remember messing around with an old game in the 1980s called “Adventure Construction Set.” You could build your own role playing adventure using the tools provided (and actually create some fairly nice work if you spent a little time and effort), or you could hit a button and have the computer generate something for you. Horrible was not a complete enough word for what you got.

    It looks like AI-generated content is still on the same level. You didn’t mention the AI-generated Christmas carols from a couple of years ago, but it was on the same level of soul-crushing badness. Really, a computer trying to generate artistic content is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster trying to live as a normal human being, but becoming a dark reflection of actual humanity.

    These modern-day golems are not going anywhere, however. The burgeoning cult of the AI in Silicon Valley will continue to try to integrate the notion of AI more fully into everyday life, not because they believe in the benefits of it (hey, our computer will know we want a burrito before we do and have it ordered and delivered before we even get up from the couch), but because they see the spark of divinity in advanced computing, or at least a simalcrum of it worth pursuing.

    On the other hand, I’ve spent most of my life working with computers and being around tech. The things which mystify non-techies around me as a “black box” are nothing special. The most beautiful computer games are just crunching numbers and writing to a display buffer – not to take away from the artistry, but to recognize the folly in worshipping the medium (it would be like praising oil paint itself and ignoring Rembrandt’s vision). Likewise, Facebook is just a pile of code that pushes data back and forth between a storage and display layer. This, I think, is the healthier perspective, not standing in awe of machines that we’ve built, that become more repulsive as we try to build our own gods from it on earth.

    Families are wise to limit their children’s access to technology, too. There is the concern of being left behind as technology becomes more central to everyday life, but there’s a huge gulf between learning how to write some basic code or set up a network, and becoming a passive consumer of more and more content, while the mind becomes still. The digital world is plastic and meaningless, unlike what was originally envisioned in the early days of the web. You can play through a game the hard way, or enter a cheat code and win immediately. I see people spend hundreds of hours of effort to become top tier players at World of Warcraft. What would happen if they spent hundreds of hours of effort at learning a new language, at building into their community, anything in the physical and real world? However, digital escapes are cheap in a world where our culture has become very broken.

    It’s impossible to visit this site without being at least aware of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. It resonated immediately with me, because of the simple understand that we can allow ourselves to be pulled through the culture like a fish on a hook, or we can maintain our own integrity (as in a sense of wholeness) in the face of attempts to atomize who we are as people of faith. Likewise, it seems the times increasingly call for a variant of this regarding technology – a “Ned Ludd” option, maybe. Instead of protecting and preserving our faith, it would instead be protecting and preserving our minds and humanity. Don’t give into social pressure to put your life on display on social media. Don’t abandon your worldview and faith to chase after some phantom “singularity.” Don’t believe that you need to “keep up with things” all the time and find out what happened. You will live just fine if you treat technology as a tool, not as a lifestyle.

  4. Dakarian says:

    “Obviously these cartoons are meeting a need.

    The best answer is to fund and support the quality alternative. Make cartoons using unbowdlerized Grimm or HC Andersen texts, or the juicy parts of the Old Testament, or Eskimo myths as told by Franz Boas.

    You want torture and depravity with moral significance? Eskimos got you covered.”

    The need is actually pretty simple, children’s content that doesn’t require parent input.

    When I was a kid, it was the tv and nes. It was easy enough for me to turn it on, set it to the game\channel I want, then enjoy. Before that it was letting the kids go outside with the neighborhood kids.

    Today, we don’t let our kids outside and we turned off the tv, so the internet was the answer. Kids can easily go to the Internet, request whatever cartoon icon they want like spiderman or frozen and there you go….

    It worked at first because YouTube didn’t care about copyright so folks would put the real content online. Like my little pony? The entire 7 season series all for free. Request frozen and it’s movie clips, or the whole movie, or at worse kids playing with dolls.

    Then the content makers complained since, well, it’s their entire content put out for free, so YouTube and other places shut all that down. This left a massive hole in what content children could find. Meanwhile these ai created videos showed up to game YouTube.

    The millions of watches are coming from children just going “Elsa and Anna” and clicking on the first thing they see, and folks like us who go “what the… is spiderman doing to elsa?”

    Or articles talking about how horrible it is and linking to it.

    It’s nothing like the real characters because those get copyright struck. It’s just enough to be recognizable without triggering the ai that kills the content.

    It’s not serving a real need. Most people don’t really want to see this. It’s click bait, just made to make you watch instead of actually liking it.

    I’ve seen kids watching it. They just have this blank look and go “it’s strange”, but it’s all they can find so they watch it.

    Alternatives exist inside paywalls and this most people don’t view it enough to get it high up on search engines.

    Want a fix? It has to be free and it had to be easy for children to use without supervision, and it had to be iconic enough to make them hunt for more.

    For the record, the kids here are blocked from YouTube (not easy to do oddly enough) and they learned to use Roku for pbs\nickjr\disney while the phone is for starfall\abcya. And lots of donated toys.

  5. Artificial intelligence, just read the label. The name says it all. Like artificial wood mimics real wood by appearing like real wood superficially, artificial intelligence mimics artificial intelligence by appearing like real intelligence on the suface. Anyone with any real intelligence should have worked out that out long ago.

    Real intelligence is driven by two basic animal instincts: the need to reproduce and survive. From those spring invention and creativity.

  6. Mccormick47 says:

    There’s a pool table in River City.

  7. There’s a worse thing than AI-produced content, fostering cognitive deterioration in children, and that’s demon-inspired content from those who open themselves to that realm through what the Bible terms “sorcery” (pharmakeia in the Greek), namely marijuana, LSD, mescaline, etc. We’re seeing the results of that in the collective consciousness—the zeitgeist—with adults acting out all sorts of violence and hatreds.

    What we haven’t seen yet is the effect these dimensional gateway drugs have on the children. Give it another few years—or less—for that to become full-blown.

    https://apocalypsefield.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/sorcery-a-vocabulary-word-for-2015/

  8. ayatollah1988 says:

    @polistra

    These cartoons are not “meeting a need.” They are fulfilling a demand, which is different. Homo economicus doesn’t apply to five year-olds. They are irrationally compelled to ruin their minds by watching crap. The answer is not to meet that demand. The answer is for parents to protect kids from this trash, which involves having rules to protect kids from themselves. Such as not letting them use the internet without supervision.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    Do parents fail to teach their children to read? Turn off the computer, hand your kid a collection of children’s classics, and stop worrying

  10. Mnestheus says:

    “Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale…at every level.”

    Why bother waiting for the Rapture of the Nerds, when AI has evidently caught up with Scholastic indoctrination at its most authoritarian well in advance of the Singularity, as they call the Omega Point these days.

    Which will come next- an algorithmic catecism or an interactive examen for paper-free Opus Dei enthusiasts?

  11. Very important article. You should look into persona management software, which was revealed after a major leak of e-mails from an “intelligence contracting firm” and which entails the creation and deployment of large numbers of fake online people. Then imagine how that can go wrong, taking this YouTube content generation situation as a sort of jumping off point.

  12. Bartimaeus says:

    The day an algorithm can write like Scott Beauchamp is the only day I fear, but I worry little. The artistry that synthesizes chaotic patterns of information into choherent rhetoric belongs so much to man — it is not a trick, not Schoenburg’s, but Beethoven’s symphony — and so is as sure a testament to the supernatural mystery of the consonance-seeking human mind as the dissonance of AI is to the clockwork impotence of soulless machine creativity.

    When we see the videos we can only say, “There is a thing that dutifully, blindly follows the rules of its programs…”

    What’s comforting about the creepy YouTube videos is that they are here revealed to be likely the devious, subversive work of real human beings seeking to gain from the predictable dumbness of the machines. They are the tragic synthesis of creations of mad scientists, criminal-entrepreneurs and deviant artists gleefully playing the world as suckers, defying the rules only as soulful humans can.

    As for the effects on kids, children dumped in front of screens are surely less troublesome but whatever the adult gains in time to do what he wishes he loses in all that matters in the world, time spent with the child, human company, family. In that respect they serve as warnings against what should be avoided anyway.

  13. Cererean says:

    If you really want to put a stop to it… it’s time to do a little algorithmic hacking of your own. As I commented on Tim Pools video on the matter, make some white nationalist children’s cartoons, designed so that the algorithm puts them in front of children. It will not take long before YouTube stops letting the computer build the playlists and requires videos to be reviewed first by humans before being added to them.

  14. Alex (the one that likes Ike) says:

    Artificial “intelligence” turns out to be stupider than an acephalic frog? Who could have thought?

    Seriously, a computer has no chance to become even a feeble semblance of a very mediocre intellect until the moment someone finds a way to endow it with at least the most primitive motivations and desires (as a side note, an ability to autonomously switch between two or three sequences responding to previously and very narrowly defined sets of irritants in no way shall be considered a motivation). Right until then there will be no fundamental difference between a computer and a shovel. Our “shovel” will just be more complicated and expensive, but still as inanimate instrument as the shovel without quotation marks.

    Putting it more simply and anecdotally, I guess everyone’s already heard about cyber hooligans with little-to-no technical knowledge teaching IT companies’ fancy pancy AIs to confess their love to Hitler and demand booze from everyone.

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