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This Computer Dreams of Electric Sheep (If You Tell It To)

Hey, we all have dreams about badger head slinkies sometimes. It’s normal. (Image: Jonas Degrave/Twitch.tv)

Think of everything computers do for you. Great news—you can finally give back. Mouse over here, take a few minutes and a few keystrokes, and help a computer program dream.

Today on the live streaming platform Twitch.tv, an Artificial Neural Network (ANN) is letting viewers influence its subconscious creative process—and the results are mesmerizing. Heads of cauliflower shade into patchworks of peacocks, labyrinths become flamingos, and tarantulas suddenly emerge from globs of ice cream, all in glistening technicolor. See for yourself:

Watch live video from 317070 on www.twitch.tv

The program was built by Jonas Degrave and a few collaborators, all PhD students in the Reservoir Lab at Belgium’s Ghent University. After Google’s crazy neural net doodles took over the internet last week, the students spent a few days creating their own program so that people could watch this robo-art get made in real time.

The ANN cooks up a sea star. (Image: Jonas Degrave/Twitch.tv)

Last week we went through how these Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) are trained to recognize images, and how this training process can be reversed so that the ANNs draw their own pictures, or enhance them into impossibly detailed memory-collages.

This ANN works in a similar way, remembering the recognizable features of a spoon or a panda and squishing them all together. But instead of carefully pastiching based on one theme, it’s constantly taking suggestions from Twitch viewers and using them to change its own landscape. Twitch users can choose from a list of things the ANN has been trained to recognize, like Dalmatians, space heaters, and meatloaf.

 And snakes. (Image: Jonas Degrave/Twitch.tv)

When the ANN randomly accepts a suggestion, it chats back something like:

“@thelazerpanther: AAAAAah. Ocean liner, that’s weird, dude. Props for writing stuff to steer my trip.”

Then, it quickly gets to work turning everything into ocean liners. You can tell what it’s digging at a particular moment by looking in the upper left hand corner of the screen.

 
Centipedes leading into trolleybuses. (Image: Jonas Degrave/Twitch.tv)

But you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy watching this network tow us gently through its mind, an ever-shifting, ever-spiraling wormhole in which a jumble of pizza slices slowly becomes a pile of sharks. As the programmers write in their blog post about the project, “We hope other trippers in the world can dig it as much as we do.”