appsflyer IOS banner image

Synthetic Horrors

Ned Beauman

April 25th, 2024

Mutant hotties, unspeakable babes: will artificial intelligence expand our sense of sexuality?

There’s a breathtaking scene in Alien: Resurrection, the fourth installment in the Alien franchise, where Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley stumbles across a laboratory full of failed clones of herself. After dying at the end of the last film, Ripley has been resurrected by scientists—but it took them eight attempts to crack it, and the first seven attempts, all deformed in different ways, have been preserved here, still alive, helpless and naked and begging to be put out of their misery.

In the summer of 2022, a London-based company called Stability AI released Stable Diffusion, a text-to-image model trained on over two billion images. The best-known tools of this kind tend to be proprietary.

If you want to use DALL-E, for instance, you have to go through OpenAI, the San Francisco research powerhouse that is part owned by Microsoft, and they maintain a content policy forbidding everything from “hateful symbols” and “negative stereotypes” to “sexual acts” and “bodily fluids.” But Stable Diffusion is freely available for anybody to download and run on their computer at home. That makes it ungovernable.

The results have been exactly what you’d predict. And the main place people are doing it—the very predictable thing—is a Discord server called Unstable Diffusion. At time of writing, it has over 400,000 users, and it’s a sort of combined art gallery and R&D lab: people go there to share their creations, but there’s also a lot of in-depth discussion of how to fine-tune your methods for better results. And much fine tuning is required, because this is a nascent technology and it still has plenty of gremlins. Unstable Diffusion has sections for Hardcore, Softcore, Men, Women, Genderqueer, Anime, BDSM, Mature, and Furry, but my favorite is a section called Synthetic Horrors. That’s where people post the attempts at pornography that the AI has fucked up in especially memorable ways. And by memorable I mean harrowing. Avant-garde. Potentially revolutionary.

Synthetic Horrors is like the Alien: Resurrection laboratory scene expanded into a teeming city. Here we find accidental centaurs, accidental mermaids, accidental conjoined siblings; hands growing out of vulvas, breasts covered in luxuriant hair, penises that have warped like germ cell tumors into indescribable shapes; hot blondes who were supposed to be riding motorcycles—you know, classic album cover stuff—instead fused with their motorcycles. The AI “knows” that above all its job is to show us bare breasts, and so you see a lot of overeagerness in this respect: often it puts breasts where the woman’s eyes should be, and above those breasts (the logical thing!) shoulders and a neck and a head, so that the end result resembles a woman growing her own twin, like the asexual reproduction of a fungus. Some of the images look fine at first glance, and then you realize that the woman has about five joints too many in her arm. If you thought AIs are bad at drawing hands, you should see one try to draw a vagina. (And when you start adding paraphernalia, things get even more chaotic: a TechCrunch article noted that “in the case of bondage, in which tying ropes and knots is a form of art (and safety mechanism) in itself, it’s hard for the AI to replicate something so intricate.”)

 I found one user estimating that “probably only like 1 out of every 10” images they create doesn’t have something horribly wrong with it— very close to the Ripley clone ratio! If you spent any time on social media in 2022, when everyone was first playing around with DALL-E and the like, you probably already have some idea of the missteps these tools can make. But a misstep that is merely strange or funny when applied to, say, a cartoon of a corgi on the moon becomes truly unsettling when applied to an image that your brain instantly recognizes as sexual.

This, of course, is the whole basis of body horror, from the sculptures of Berlinde de Bruyckere to the films of David Cronenberg to the self-transformations of Salvia and Fecal Matter. But body horror fans like me used to have to wait for years at a time to see something as gnarly as the Alien: Resurrection laboratory scene. Now Unstable Diffusion is generating scads of the stuff every day. Most of the “AI art” you see online is pure kitsch, but the best of these Synthetic Horrors do have the quality of real art to me, in the sense that they’re images of genuine power and novelty. They just happen to be completely inadvertent, the way so many of the most compelling things on the Internet are completely inadvertent.

Of course, body horror is about much more than just being gross. In the early months of Unstable Diffusion, one user admitted “i'm actually starting to like some specific mutations,” and another replied, “Just like [Google’s AI] deepmind taught the best chess and go players entirely new ways to view the game, AI art will teach people entirely new fetishes.” I couldn’t contain my glee when I saw that, because it’s the most Cronenbergian interaction I’ve ever seen outside a Cronenberg film. From “Long live the new flesh” in 1983’s Videodrome to “Surgery is the new sex” in last year’s Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg’s horrors have always been about liberation and possibility. Likewise, Julia Ducournau, director of the deeply Cronenbergian Raw and Titane, has declared that “Monstrosity, for me, is always positive. It’s about debunking all the normative ways of society and social life.”

Although most of the material in Unstable Diffusion’s Genderqueer section is just anime babes augmented with big spurting penises in a fairly rote way—a genre known as futanari, literally “of two kinds”—I’ve also seen images that genuinely seem like fresh permutations of how gender can be expressed on a body. Unstable Diffusion users may or may not be joking when they talk about new fetishes, but in fact it’s not so far-fetched to imagine someone’s sexuality being expanded by something an AI dreamed up for them. And that won’t necessarily happen in the Genderqueer section. Maybe it will happen in the Vehicles section. Maybe it will happen in the Food section. Maybe it will happen in the Synthetic Horrors section.

 There are all kinds of reasons to worry about the potential flattening, hollowing and garbling effects when AI-generated content begins to constitute a meaningful percentage of our daily diets. But one common concern about pornography in particular is that, if the old kind already teaches men that women are supposed to be perfect malleable bimbos, that’s going to get ten times worse when men have the power to create the women of their fantasies, meticulously calibrating areola radius and labium shaped like Pygmalion in his studio. Isn’t it possible, though, that Synthetic Horrors could have the reverse effect? In her seminal 1986 essay “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine,” the film theorist Barbara Creed basically says that men make horror films about the aspects of women they think are disgusting. She proposes Ripley in the first Alien as “the ‘acceptable’ form and shape of woman,” “pleasurable and reassuring to look at,” in contrast to the bloodier, gooier femininity of the Xenomorph.

Yet by Alien: Resurrection, Ripley has part of the alien’s DNA in her— and indeed a deleted scene from late in the film, following the birth of a half-human Xenomorph with hermaphroditic genitals, would apparently have shown Ripley smooching with this skull-faced futanari, almost as if the sight of her own warped clones had awakened some Cronenbergian urge to subvert the “‘acceptable’ form and shape” as furiously as possible. Imagine that tomorrow the TikTok teens discover Synthetic Horrors. Suddenly everyone’s talking about how turned on they are by the fungus lady. In effect, the Ripley clones of Alien: Resurrection become the erotic ideal instead of the Ripley of Alien. We rescue them from the lab and rehome them in this interzone of outcasts. The new flesh is here and so is the old. Creed’s “Monstrous-Feminine”—the messy reality of women, and indeed not only women but everyone who isn’t a run-of-the-mill cis man—is a little bit less despised.

I admit that these are some pretty lofty claims to make for a chat room where guys with usernames like cum227 swap pictures of sexy elves with their tits out. I’m not promising that any of that will happen. But I do think we ought to cherish Synthetic Horrors. Because like any neighborhood full of weirdos and misfits, it’s on borrowed time until something much shinier is put up in its place. I know I said that AIs are bad at drawing hands, but in fact the pace of progress is so fast that these days any seasoned user of these tools knows exactly which plug-ins will correct such foibles. The inevitable result of all these hobbyists contributing their millions of hours of horny unpaid R&D is that AI porn will soon be perfected—the kinks, so to speak, ironed out. Perfected and then packaged and then sold. There will be no more Synthetic Horrors, because these tools won’t be permitted to make interesting mistakes any more. Instead, they will ask us exactly what we want, and then stuff us to bursting with it.

Even today, some of the pin-ups on Unstable Diffusion have a sort of electric quality that startles you when you see them. As I said, these tools are trained on billions of images, and the way I think of it is that they’ve taken those billions of images and boiled them down into an ultra-concentrated syrup of pure libido. They haven’t yet been fitted out with reinforcement learning, where the algorithm is “rewarded” for its successes and “punished” for its mistakes; but once that happens, they will be able to experiment and optimize at dizzying rates until they understand what we crave even better than we understand it ourselves. Andrej Karpathy, formerly one of the top researchers at OpenAI, once tweeted that “AI-assisted generative art may converge to wire-heading”—wire-heading meaning technology that directly stimulates your pleasure centers so you never want to do anything else. When this happens, surely it will start with porn. If you think there’s nothing new left to learn about sexual desire after all of human art and culture has spent several thousand years obsessively investigating it, well, why did it take the porn industry so long to work out that a really unholy number of people wanted to watch videos of stepbrothers doing things to their stepsisters? The algorithm will stack up discoveries like that every minute.

 But thankfully, we’re not quite there yet. In the meantime, Unstable Diffusion is still a realm of pure possibility: an underworld of mutants and chimeras, two-headed clones and intersex aliens, nightmarish hotties and unspeakable babes.

Original painting by Rebecca Storm.