Google's Deep Dream images are eye-popping, but are they art?

Google's Deep Dream creates intensely addictive eye-candy, but its appeal goes far beyond the visual.

Manipulated algorithm produces psychedelic abstractions

This is what happens when an already mind-bending painting by Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves is processed through Google's Deep Dream algorithm. (Facebook/Google Deepdream Art)

Last month, Google revealed that it had found a surprising new use for its image-recognition software. The company's software engineers are tweaking the algorithm using a method dubbed "Deep Dream," which has produced a kaleidoscopic new genre of computer-art characterized by dreamy pagodas, haunting animal faces and electric-acid colour splotches. Whether or not this actually counts as "art" is a topic of debate, but that hasn't stopped Deep Dream from dominating the internet since its source code was made public a few weeks ago.

On a basic level, Deep Dream works by instructing a computer network designed for image recognition to over-interpret what it sees. Visual material is entered as an input into Deep Dream, and the network picks out and enhances the features it thinks it recognizes, based on images stored in its memory bank. The enhanced image is fed back into the system, and the process is repeated until bizarre new objects, landscapes and creatures emerge. The results are crazy, in both good and bad ways.

Here's a video that's supposed to visually clarify what Deep Dream does step-by-step, but mostly just looks cool:

Perhaps the freakiest thing about Google's algorithm — besides the fact that it has already inspired a new genre of porn (NSFW) — is that the process even works with random noise. The vivid dreamscapes below were created from visual static, generated randomly:

(Google)
(Google)

Robots are supposed to be efficient, logical and cold. (They will make formidable opponents when they decide to overthrow the yoke of humanity one day.) But they're not supposed to be capable of generating their own art. That realm is reserved for things that think and feel, right? The concept of self-aware computers, of course, has been science fiction fodder for decades, and it feels like we're witnessing that notion in its infancy (especially when computers can now also mimic human handwriting and write poetry).

Still, it's difficult to pinpoint who, exactly, is the artist here. Is it the creator of the algorithm? Is it the person who inputs the source image? Is it the computer? Or is it some combination of all three?

These computerized art pieces resonate deeply with us because they remind us of ourselves — and hold the potential to illuminate one of the most enigmatic parts of our brains. Google researchers write that Deep Dream could "shed a little light on the roots of the creative process in general," and an article in Psychology Today points out that the technology could be "potentially enormous for dream research." 

It's difficult to pinpoint who, exactly, is the artist here.

One Reddit user, after seeing Deep Dream images for the first time, observed, "It was like I had crossed this existential threshold where I not only knew that my brain was just a computer, but now knew exactly how and why."

Hopefully these innovations will go beyond novelty and actually help us understand more about ourselves one day. ISapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian YuvalHarari posits that "within a decade or two we could have an artificial human brain inside a computer that could feel, talk and behave very much as a human does."

Maybe that brain will be one of a million robot Picassos, stored on hard drives everywhere.

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