Presenting visual and performance art in unexpected public spaces.

Scott Draves: Making Computers Conscious

by John Critelli

Can machines have souls?

Scott Draves thinks they can.

“Computers and robots started out as literally mechanical,” he says, “but as they develop, they are getting more subtle and more magical.”

“Magical” certainly describes Drave’s project Electric Sheep.

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Electric Sheep is, at first glance, just a screen saver. But it may be the first step in bridging the gap between humans and machines. Draves says the project’s goal is to create an electronic life form that lives on a computer network.

But he needs help from thousands of fans.

Electric Sheep is not a self-contained system,” he says. “It has porous borders, and what leaks into the machine and tweaks the algorithm is human.”

Users create vibrant animations, called “sheep,” which are uploaded to the Electric Sheep server. Those sheep become part of the screen saver, and other users vote for their favorites. Popular sheep get to “breed” with each other, creating all-new, computer-generated animations.

Image source

Draves sees this as a combination of evolution and intelligent design. He calls the process “creative amplification,” and hopes this amplification will continue until Electric Sheep reaches a “supercritical” stage.

At that point, the program will understand what people like well enough to create beautiful sheep on its own – without the voting process.

“That’s a milestone of the path from inanimate to alive,” Draves says.

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Computers with souls

And he believes that once computers are alive, they can have souls. Not in the religious sense, but in the sense that they can achieve consciousness and self-awareness. In fact, he thinks computer consciousness is inevitable.

“For me it’s an issue of ‘when’ and ‘how’ more than ‘if,'” he says.

Draves tackles the “how” part with Electric Sheep.

“Some configurations of matter are more inviting to ‘soul,'” he says.

In this case, the configuration he refers to is Electric Sheep‘s “distributed computing” system. It uses processing power from over 450,000 computers, most of which belong to ordinary people who just decided to install the screensaver. Each computer renders a small part of the animations, collectively producing something that would be almost impossible with a single machine.

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The Flame algorithm

The animations are rendered with Draves’ Flame algorithm, which he developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He made the most progress in 1991, during an internship in Tokyo, Japan. He says the internship gave him “access to a graphics supercomputer and lots of free time.”

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But he still didn’t consider himself an artist, partly because digital art wasn’t popular at the time. Instead, he saw the Flame algorithm as a reaction against the computer graphics industry, which he says “was about realism and storytelling.”

Conversely, “Flame was about abstraction and emergence,” he says.

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The algorithm creates patterns called fractals – shapes that contain many smaller versions of themselves. However, Draves doesn’t see himself as a fractal artist. He prefers to be called a visual and software artist.

“Most people who consider themselves ‘fractal artists’ are just turning a few knobs on software they’ve downloaded, so it’s not that creative or meaningful,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, “my work with Flame and Electric Sheep has a philosophy. They are engaged in conversation with our culture at large.”

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Life outside of Electric Sheep and the Flame algorithm

Draves had what he calls a “pretty normal” childhood in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I was into math as a kid and discovered computers in 1978, taught myself to program, and have been obsessed ever since,” he says.

He graduated from Brown University in 1990 with a Bachelor of Science in Math, then went on to get a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science. In 1997, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked for a series of tech startups, including DreamWorks Studios.

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But he continued to work on his art, and moved to New York City in 2005 to pursue it full time.

“That was going great until the financial crisis hit,” he says. “I wanted a family, so I decided to get a day job again.” Now he works for Google, ensuring the quality of Google Maps. And he has the family he always dreamed of.

“I am married to a brilliant and beautiful woman and we have three young children,” Draves says. “I get up at about 6:30 with the baby, get my older son to school at 8:00, then bike to work on the Hudson. I work for the man until 6:00, then go home and help get the kids to bed.”

This routine doesn’t leave much time for art.

“I get about 3 hours of work on my art before bed at midnight,” he says. “Weekends are when I can sometimes get a real block of time and accomplish something.”

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Download Electric Sheep and read our interview

But Draves gets a lot done, even with limited time. He recently worked with several programmers to develop a mobile version of Electric Sheep for Android Phones.

“We use the Live Wallpaper feature so it runs behind the icons on your home screen,” he says. “We developed some special tech so it plays smoothly without effecting your battery.”

He’s also working on a mobile game version for the iPad, which should be out this summer.

Click here to download the Android version of Electric Sheep, or click here to download the screen saver. Finally, read below for our full, unabridged interview with Draves.

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AiOP: What is the significance of the name “Electric Sheep?”

Draves: It’s a reference to the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick. The trope is that to fall asleep you count sheep. But this is a screen-saver that runs on a computer, so when you computer goes to sleep the screensaver comes on, and your computer dreams, and it counts “electric sheep.” My art isn’t about the book (or the movie based on it, “BladeRunner”) but I really enjoy both of them.

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AiOP: Could you tell us a bit about your upbringing and personal life?

Draves: I had a pretty normal youth in the suburbs of Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania]. I was into math as a kid and discovered computers in 1978, taught myself to program, and have been obsessed ever since. Even back then I played the same game I still do: how can I write a program that surprises even me?

My personal life is quite blissful and chaotic depending on when you look at it. I am married to a brilliant and beautiful woman and we have three young children.

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AiOP: Can you give us some background on your education and career?

Draves: I got a [Bachelors degree] in Math from Brown where I worked in Andy van Dam’s Computer Graphics Group and wrote visualization software for Thomas Banchoff. That was back in 1990. Then I went to the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science and got a PhD under Peter Lee doing research in metaprogramming for media processing. In 1997 I moved to the [San Francisco] Bay Area and worked for a series of tech startups from chips (Transmeta) to streaming media to DreamWorks, the animation studio. All this time I had been doing art on the side, and it was getting more serious as time went by. So I started doing art full-time, and moved to [New York City] in 2005. That was going great until the financial crisis hit and I wanted a family, so I decided to get a day job again. So now I work for Google. They have been really supportive of my art though what I do for them is much more practical; right now it’s visualization for maps data quality.

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AiOP: What’s a typical day like for you?

Draves: I get up at about 6:30 with the baby, get my older son to school at 8, then bike to work on the Hudson. I work for the man until 6, then go home and help get the kids to bed. Why they resist so hard is a mystery. Then my wife and I have dinner and I get about 3 hours of work on my art before bed at midnight. Weekends are when I can sometimes get a real block of time and accomplish something.

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AiOP: What inspired you to create the Flame algorithm? Were you influenced by other digital art?

Draves: In the late [1980s] I had been playing with the equations behind it for several years, experimenting with different visualizations and techniques. Due to the complexities of the math, I had to make major approximations in order to get any results. The results were interesting and I kept at it. Then in [1991] I ended up on an internship in Tokyo with access to a graphics supercomputer and lots of free time. I went back to that code and, freed by the supercomputer from the constraint of time, was able to reveal the beauty and subtlety of the equations. I was amazed and knew immediately that I had something new.

At that time I didn’t consider myself an artist and there wasn’t much digital art out there. Computer graphics and animation was an established industry though, and I knew a lot about that. This was a reaction against that field, which was about realism and storytelling. Flame was about abstraction and emergence. There was also a hacker culture. By no means was I the only one doing this kind of thing, but a lot of it was unpublished and just transmitted by word of mouth and late night demo sessions. This was before the web and before search engines but there were some newsgroups and email and people knew each other personally. A lot of that was lost, and now that the art world has became interested in computers it’s being rediscovered with a new sensibility.

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AiOP: Why did you feel it was important to make Electric Sheep an open-source, interactive project? [Author note: Open source is a philosophy that allows all users to access the source code of a program. That’s why Electric Sheep users can design their own animations.]

Draves: Open source has been part of who I am since the [1980s]. I started using GNU tools and was especially impressed by Emacs, the text editor by [Richard Stallman]. I read about the [Free Software Foundation] and the [General Public License] (one of the two legal foundations of open source), and I got on the bus. So part of what I’m trying to do with the Electric Sheep is move our culture in that direction by showing people what collaboration among many people can accomplish. The software has gone way beyond what I could do by myself, and that’s important to me too: exceeding my boundaries.

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AiOP: What appeals to you about fractals?

Draves: Well there are two answers to that. What most people call “fractal art” I don’t like, and I certainly don’t consider myself a fractal artist. The fact is, they just don’t have that much variety, so pretty quickly you get bored. Most people who consider themselves “fractal artists” are just turning a few knobs on software they’ve downloaded, so it’s not that creative or meaningful. Most of what people call fractals are more like the Mandelbrot set, which is nothing like the Flame algorithm. It looks different and the algorithm is different.

What I do is not the same thing as “fractal art” because, for one I am writing the software myself and fractals are only a small part of it. The Flame algorithm has become its own genre, thanks to plug-ins everywhere, as well as the standalone programs like Apophysis, which were developed by others, building on my open source code. In many ways it’s like a particle system, but on such a large scale that it becomes painterly. Most particle systems have thousands of particles. We use billions.

But the most important distinction is that my work with Flame and Electric Sheep has a philosophy. They are engaged in conversation with our culture at large. Electric Sheep is not a self-contained system, it has porous borders, and what leaks into the machine and tweaks the algorithm is human. What is the difference between man and machine and can the line be crossed? Can you make a live organism out of a network of computers, code, people, and art? The Electric Sheep were designed to be a self-supporting, network-resident life-form. I’m exploring the boundary between the artificial and the organic using algorithms, crowd-sourcing, and evolution, and expressing the solution in art.

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AiOP: Similarly, why did you feel it was important for the sheep to “breed” and evolve on their own?

Draves: Part of what I’m doing is making the computer creative and the genetic algorithm is a powerful part of that. Obviously it works great in the real world, in the form of Darwinian natural selection that created all life as we know it. But not every translation of breeding from real biology to computer code works equally well. And it happens to combine well with the human “intelligent designers” as well as the audience voting. In fact the system’s evolution is always interactive in this way, I don’t have it set up to go “on its own.” The inclusion of breeding wasn’t a conceptual statement by itself, it’s a means to the generativity, a form of creative amplification. In Can a machine do anything new, Alan Turing wrote:

One could say that a man can “inject” an idea into the machine, and that it will respond to a certain extent and then drop into quiescence, like a piano string struck by a hammer. Another simile would be an atomic pile of less than critical size: an injected idea is to correspond to a neutron entering the pile from without. Each such neutron will cause a certain disturbance which eventually dies away. If, however, the size of the pile is sufficiently increased, their disturbance caused by such an incoming neutron will very likely go on and on increasing until the whole pile is destroyed. Is there a corresponding phenomenon for minds, and is there one for machines? … Adhering to this analogy we ask, “Can a machine be made to be supercritical?”

The genetics algorithm is important because it brings the system closer to that supercritical stage. See http://draves.org/aoae07/ for an analysis of this.

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AiOP: Electric Sheep has been called “Excellent for meditation, relaxation, and visual dreaming.” Is your goal with Electric Sheep to alter or enhance the way people think? If so, how?

Draves: I definitely hope it’s enlightening conceptually. And though it wasn’t a design goal, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that it has some practical benefits as well. I’ve heard it’s great for calming babies and even treating chronic pain. Those are just anecdotes, but I would love to study those questions formally.

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AiOP: Why do you think Electric Sheep has become the most popular of your projects?

Draves: It has a viral/internet aspect that has been a good curve to ride. It was really early and so it’s had time to grow. Plus, still there’s nothing like the Flame algorithm, and I think people appreciate that level of sophistication and subtlety at the visual level.

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AiOP: You once said that computers can have soul. Can you explain and elaborate on this?

Draves: Ultimately, yes, I think so. We have a long way to go of course. And I could be wrong, but that is my thesis. Of course you have to ask what a soul is, and I don’t use that word in a traditional religious sense. I mean, consciousness and self-awareness. And I believe it is somehow generated by a pattern in the behavior of the atoms and fields of our bodies. And I believe matter and electricity follow the laws of physics which can be defined mathematically and hence simulated on a computer. Inevitably you end up with the Strong AI hypothesis. For me it’s an issue of “when” and “how” more than “if”.

Computers and robots started out as literally mechanical, but as they develop, they are getting more subtle and more magical. Some people say consciousness is everywhere and I agree, though I don’t think it’s equally distributed. Some configurations of matter are more inviting to “soul”. The Electric Sheep is trying to give us an intuitive understanding of this possibility.

Find this sheep

AiOP: A mobile version of Electric Sheep is now available. What can you tell us about that?

Draves: We’ve been working on them for over a year and we’re really excited to release them. The Android version is out and iPad is almost done. On Android we use the Live Wallpaper feature so it runs behind the icons on your home screen. We developed some special tech so it plays smoothly without effecting your battery. Please check it out and spread the word: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.spotworks.electricsheep. The iPad version uses the bigger screen to be more of an interactive game, and should be out this summer.

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AiOP: Your art was recently featured in Madrid. You got some very high-profile guests, correct?

Draves: Yes, the Crown Prince and Princess of Spain came to the opening. It wasn’t just the opening of our show, it was of the opening of the exhibition space itself as well, in Telefonica’s headquarters building, and the company brass was there of course. There was all kinds of security and the cameras were flashing like fluttering butterfly.

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 8, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    And, as discussed before, it is extremely reasonably priced for how effective it is.

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