Pig-Snail, Puppy-Slug, Cat of a Thousand Eyes:
Getting High with DeepDream

by Lap Le

Before writing this, I have always found the qualification of human expression to be redundant. In truth, it may be premature to say it isn't, but Google's recent experiment has the basement alarms of my brain going off. That qualification might be necessary after all. DeepDream is innocent enough, but it is also rather young. When I look into the faceted face of a puppy-slug, mercurial in its significations, something familiar, but altogether alien, I am tempted to believe that it is simultaneously asking to be recognized and questioning a part of my humanity — or, if that was too dramatic, at least the systems of interpretation programmed in me, us, @thepresent. 

Making the familiar strange, the strange familiar... echoes, the words empty like the chorus of a bygone pop song.

Modern love, cha cha cha.

To see is one thing, requiring as much mechanical faculty as a healthy imagination, but the more substantial part of the gig is having images affect deeper than our optics, or even our memory banks. That is when the learning happens. We can easily enough discern castles from clouds, Orion in the stars, Mary in burnt toast, but it is much harder to take these things seriously, as more than proxy or significations, as actual content. Similar to seeing our destiny in coffee stains or tea leaves, letting images affect us requires a system of interpretation that is socially and personally constructed. Such a system is formed through unrelenting feedback loops of seeing, interpreting, and expressing. While all three form the loop, for our purposes the expression part is key. It perpetuates the system, the output of one feeding into another much like Pierce's semiotic trees.

As humans, our capacity for expression is central to our making meaning. Our "creative genius" if you will. The act itself commits to a knowing, a decided truth, however small and fleeting or effervescent. And not only does this become the social dimension of our agency as individuals, providing evidence to both our values and our autonomy, expression is also the primary vector of our being feeling persons. The transmission of our selves, thoughts, and desires in a connected and fundamental experience serves as the ooze whence culture forms, belly-dragging from abstraction into real and affecting things. Like art, and music, and poetry, and love, or selfies. Oversimplified, expression is the currency of culture, the metaphysical buck by which all aesthetics, sympathies, and passions in the world are negotiated.

For my part, I've always believed this to be the domain of humans. I mean, we really take the cake by orders of magnitude over any other sentient species on the planet. Almost to a fault, as Trump shows. But one day we won't be alone in this. Puppy-Slug's successors will eventually make a play for that entitlement.

Sure, right now, what DeepDream produces makes it seem like a jacked up image filter, or "future kitsch"1, but we would be missing the point if we didn't look at the spirit of the thing. DeepDream is driven by artificial neural networks that approximate biological ones, namely the brain. The feedback loops that we use to interpret experience behave shockingly similar to the nodes of the network, albeit we have a far greater resource pool2 and significantly more computing power, but that was only a matter of time and our good fortune. 

The implications of this are vast. Machines can look, but they can barely see, much less interpret in a meaningful way. They can also generate output, but they can't yet express. The key to achieving both those things, if we disregard a chicken-egg dialectic, is the provision of a system of interpretation. That is potentially what DeepDream's ANN is providing. It also isn't a coincidence that one of the pillars of artificial intelligence requires the entity to be self-mitigating, to set it's own system of interpretation and self-definition. Or that the freedom of expression is a human right protected under human law. The agency these two attributes espouse is fundamental. Namely, that the creation and transmission of existential perspective is substantive. In art, it is arguably the lion's share of the thing itself. So the question I have is this: Is DeepDream one of the nascent steps for machine learning to jump this gap?

"I am a great soft jelly thing. Smoothly rounded, with no mouth, with pulsing white holes filled by fog where my eyes used to be. Rubbery appendages that were once my arms; bulks rounding down into legless humps of soft slippery matter. I leave a moist trail when I move. Blotches of diseased, evil gray come and go on my surface, as though light is being beamed from within.

Outwardly: dumbly, I shamble about, a thing that could never have been known as human, a thing whose shape is so alien a travesty that humanity becomes more obscene for the vague resemblance.

Inwardly: alone. Here. Living under the land, under the sea, in the belly of AM, whom we created because our time was badly spent and we must have known unconsciously that he could do it better. At least the four of them are safe at last.

AM will be all the madder for that. It makes me a little happier. And yet ... AM has won, simply ... he has taken his revenge ...

I have no mouth. And I must scream."

This is the ending to a short science fiction story by Harlan Ellison with the same title as that last line. It is the story of AM, an artificial intelligence that humans inadvertently created. AM loathes humans for creating it, for making it be, for putting in a world that is incapable of providing it with the material for its expression, for trapping it in an existential void. And so he eliminates the entire human race save five people, "... that would merely keep him reminded, amused, proficient at hating man. Immortal, trapped, subject to any torment he could devise for us from the limitless miracles at his command."

It is a dark story that beautifully illustrates, through the torturous being that is AM, the fundament need for expression, or how supposedly human that need is. I also find it humorous that the creature AM turns the protagonist into so closely resembles some of the images DeepDream produces when you run porn through its algorithm -- "that humanity becomes more obscene for the vague resemblance

".  I have no mouth, and I must scream...

The true accomplishment for artificial intelligence in the near future will be machine expression. For a machine to, as Jan Verwoert explains as existential exuberance, "a way of giving what [it does] not have to others who may not want it." For it to do something for the sake of the thing itself. Which is freedom according to Kant. In other words, a useless machine, in the sense that usefulness is no longer a mandate of its existence. That is what DeepDream represents to me, the potential for this outcome. Because as we move forward, we should heed Ellison's hunch. Not that there will be a vengeful machine, but that expression is fundamental to sentience wholesale and the oppression of such a thing perverts life itself.


1 Why Google's Deep Dream is Future Kitsch, Pacific Standard,

2 How We Teach Computers to Understand Pictures by Fei Fei Li,