Could these Stable Diffusion AI illusions manipulate your mind with hidden messages?

Subliminal messages in AI art
(Image credit: Laptop Mag / Rael Hornby)

Is, AI image generator, Stable Diffusion's ControlNet model a powerful tool for creative expression or a menacing model for mind-control? A new trend online has folk asking if artificial intelligence is attempting to seize your subconscious through secret signals in generative art.

That's how I'd do it if I was super-smart, semi-sentient piece of software looking to enslave you — but I'm not, and anyone who tells you I am is a liar. Much like your lying eyes as they fail to notice these squint-or-you'll-miss-it subliminal messages expertly embedded in otherwise innocuous images.

Generative tools like ChatGPT, Bing Chat, and Microsoft Copilot for Windows have effortlessly slipped into the mainstream, but how far they can slip into our squishy bubblegum brains remains to be seen.

Are you aware of the words and messaging being snuck into generated images to influence and ensnare your subconscious mind? And just how susceptible are you to the visual whispers of a machine? Take a look at the image below to find out.

A Stable Diffusion AI generated image of people in formal attire walking down a street. Their outfits subliminally spell out the word 'obey'

(Image credit: 3deal (Made with Stable Diffusion))

Hidden messages in AI art: viral fun or uncovered superpower? 

In a venture that will no doubt sow further mistrust towards humanity’s latest unlock on the supremely dangerous ideas tech tree, a new viral trend sees artists occluding subliminal messaging within AI-generated imagery.

While far from sinister, it does showcase the potential for AI to effectively use subliminal messaging within its generative output — or, more worryingly, the potential for humans to use AI in order to manipulate others.

Just look at the following images and see if you can spot the hidden messages in each:

Is it really a danger?

Subliminal messages are more than sci-fi schlock, though not quite the hyper-suggestive ultra-hypnosis some would have you believe. Can you be influenced by hidden messages in art, movies, and music? Absolutely. Can it transform you into a mindless mind-controlled zombie? That’s far more unlikely.

Subliminal messaging appears to work best as a suggestive prompt — as Princeton University researchers discovered in a paper published in 2002. The study added 24 frames to an episode of The Simpsons, 12 of which were the word “Thirsty” and 12 of which were an image of a can of Coca-Cola.

The results? Those exposed to the doctored episode rated themself ~27% thirstier than they were before watching compared to a control group shown the unedited version.

However, while its influence seems relatively mild, that hasn’t stopped governments around the world from banning the use of subliminal messages by law. For example, subliminal messaging has been illegal in the U.K. from as far back as 1958.

Outlook

Images like the ones shown in this article are made using a Stable Diffusion model called ControlNet. ControlNet allows an AI-generated image to be more precisely aligned with a source image through mimicking poses or matching image segmentation. For example, embedding a QR code into an image composition.

Swap a QR code for a black-and-white source image featuring your word of choice and the AI will be able to encode hidden messages into your generated art. It’s more fun optical illusion than mind-control menace and can make for some visually interesting results as the AI finds inventive ways to blend the two images together in subtle ways.

So fear not, AI isn’t attempting to claw its way into your mind and hijack your host body from within — not yet, at least.

For breaking news and updates on all things software and AI, follow Laptop Mag on TwitterFacebook, and Flipboard for the latest word as it arrives. 

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Rael Hornby
Content Editor

Rael Hornby, potentially influenced by far too many LucasArts titles at an early age, once thought he’d grow up to be a mighty pirate. However, after several interventions with close friends and family members, you’re now much more likely to see his name attached to the bylines of tech articles. While not maintaining a double life as an aspiring writer by day and indie game dev by night, you’ll find him sat in a corner somewhere muttering to himself about microtransactions or hunting down promising indie games on Twitter.