Kunstsammlung NRW
© Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen: Deniz Elbir

Deep Dream – While Google Sleeps

A highly mathematical procedure: algorithms, probabilities, calculations. The results seem grotesque, fascinating, and terrifying all at once. A Google research group has developed an algorithm that takes us a step closer to artificial intelligence and machine art. We try to get to the bottom of this provocative interface between imagery and digitalization.

Deniz Elbir reports for #32 on a new phenomenon in the online world

Sleep is an indispensable, deep psychological process that ensures human mental health. At night, the events of the day are processed – albeit in subtle and convoluted forms. Of course, dream scenarios often include objects and events that seem improbable in relation to ordinary reality, yet in emotional terms, they represent genuine experience. Dreams, then, consists of a substrate of everything we see, hear, and feel.

What, then, does a Google search engine see during the dream phase, after having been stuffed full all day long with countless search terms, images, and other content? One of the things we can expect to see is animal-related content. Numberless users send millions upon millions of animal photographs and videos around the data streams of Internet: loved or hated, they draw attention on social networks, or in the form of e-mail attachments, causing dissension between office colleagues around the world. When in doubt, videos of dogs, cats and other animals are always a draw.

Google Investigates Artificial Intelligence

The Google project Deep Dream analyzes imagery in relation to familiar patterns and objects. Generated for this purpose are artificial neuronal networks consisting of computer networks, which primarily serve purposes of image recognition. Ceaselessly, Google’s webcrawler Googlebot searches the Internet for new content, indexes it, and includes it in the Google search. The process of visual scanning is assumed by the Deep Dream Engine – normally. In this instance, however, researchers inverted the process in order to stimulate the neuronal networks in such a way that they now generate and interpret their own images.

The innovation here is that now, the Deep Dream Engine functions while fully detached from human intervention. If you send an image through the engine, it interprets this input in ways analogous to human cognition, adding its own associations to the original. Step-by-step, in multiple superimposed levels, simple forms and schemata, then patterns, and finally objects are recognized and supplemented with contents with which the system is already familiar. The Deep Dream Engine hence recognizes independent images and has access to its own interpretive space, its ‘personal’ interface between knowledge, experience, and expectations, on whose basis it generates interpretations of imagery.

Psychedelic Computer

When an image is sent through Deep Dream (a process that can take days or even weeks), the result is increasingly peculiar and even unsettling images. Eyes seem to observe the beholder from every corner of the image; objects metamorphize into grotesque chimeras that seem to come straight out of a bad LSD trip.

In our experiment, our own little editorial birdie – an allegory of the social networks – was transformed into a bizarre snail creature with many eyes and tentacles, which encircled the monitor. Appearing in the background were many smaller and larger such appendages, seemingly the product of psychedelic patterns, which represent the trees along Paul-Klee-Platz. Somehow, the image is characteristic of the search engine company itself, that enormous data octopus: does Google somehow know what we think of its search engine?

Original pattern for Deep Dream, photo © Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen: Deniz Elbir

But these images resonate on a deeper level as well: now, we are confronted with visualizations, designs crafted not by human hands, but produced instead by a machine reality. Inherent to the creative process here as well is the displacement of experiences into fresh contexts, the generation of autonomous, independent works within a personal universe, the exploitation of one's own fund of information.

Artificial Intelligence: Baby Steps

At first, admittedly, the entire business simply seems bizarre. And of course, this novel mode of artistic creation cannot be expected to shift the world from its moorings immediately – although it has certainly caused quite a sensation online. But when computers can engage in pattern recognition and interpretation independently, we have certainly taken another step toward artificial intelligence. Deep Dream constitutes a status report regarding what is already technically possible. And no one would develop such a resource-intensive gadget solely in order to keep the online community amused. It remains to be seen who will ultimately gain control of it. For a machine that can recognize dogs and cats will soon be able to recognize people as well – at which point the Dream could quickly become a Nightmare. And at that point, it hardly matters whether it is the intelligence services or the chiefs of marketing departments that rub their hands together with glee.