An Electric Sheep created by Phssthpok

“Dr. Chandra, will I dream?”
“I don’t know.”

If Hal was somehow able to dream after Dr. Chandra shut it down in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2010,” the results may have looked something like Electric Sheep. Not at all resembling the sheep we might conjure as we fall asleep, these beautiful digital images spring to life when a computer drifts off to its screensaver slumber. But they’re more than just a randomized graphics program. Each Electric Sheep is the collective creation of thousands of computers around the world. The Electric Sheep shown in the pictures and videos below are a striking artistic demonstration of the creative powers of the Internet and open source sharing. By voting on sheep they find visually appealing, humans cause these virtual creatures to compete, procreate and evolve. What strange and beautiful results may arise as these visual creations become ever better examples of digital lifeforms?

The sheep are the creation of Scott Draves, and they’re the conceptual descendants of one of Draves’ earlier creations called Flames. While getting his PhD in computer science at Carnegie Melon he wrote an graphics algorithm to create fractal patterns by treating each pixel as a variable and by introducing parameters that numbered in the thousands. The original flames were created using plugins for Adobe Photoshop and AfterEffects. He published the algorithm online and, well, the Flames spread. Today the Flame algorithm is installed on millions of computers worldwide.

created by user cqfd93

But the Flames were static and Draves wanted to animate them. Inspired by the then new [email protected] project that used the Internet to tap the computing power of millions of idle home computers, Draves utilized a similar approach to be able to carry out the demanding computations required to animate his Flames.

As the number of people who downloaded the free screensaver grew, so did the number of frames able to be rendered on Draves’ server. The iterative algorithm was able to take the newly added pixel data and rearrange them in new ways, with new colors and motions. And that’s how Electronic Sheep were born.

created by user Bananablob

A GUI app called Apophysis that makes it easier for users to create sheep replaced the original Flame plugins. Now thousands of sheep are being created by thousands of people with an artistic bent. The current version gives each sheep about ten seconds of life before another sheep begins swirling in its place. If you think of the sheep as virtual lifeforms – as Draves does – you can – also like Draves – think of each sheep’s algorithm as its genetic code. As he wrote for the computer graphics interest group SIGGRAPH, new animations “have a chance to contribute their genes to the reproductive system of the Electric Sheep, which was already based on Darwinian evolution with mutation and crossover.”

created by user brood

Here’s the first of several videos to give you a look at what these beautiful “lifeforms” look like.

But every good Darwinian system needs a ‘Survival of The Fittest’ force. That’s where the users come in. As users watch the sheep morph on their computer screen they can vote for the ones they like and vote down the ones they don’t. In this example of art imitating life, the fittest sheep – that is, the most popular ones – get to “mate” and contribute their virtual DNA to produce unique offspring. Draves calls it a “process of death and rebirth.” You can download the sheep program here to try your hand at some artificial natural selection.

Electric Sheep are not merely a very ingenious and labor-intensive way to make pretty screensavers, they’re part of Draves’ open source philosophy. “I think we as a society should support free information to a much greater extent than we do,” he said in an interview with The Creators Project. “My artwork is a manifestation of this philosophy.”

Creative Commons, the online affiliate that provides licensing to open share software including Electric Sheep, share Draves’ philosophy. They believe that only through universal access to research, education, and culture can the full power of the Internet be realized. They envision a day when the Internet is used to harness the creative input of thousands or millions of users to not only make better sheep, but improve our lives through an evolutionary honing of knowledge.

But just as the products of biological evolution aren’t always the most straightforward solutions (see David Linden’s “The Accidental Mind” for a healthy dose of humility about our brains’ hodgepodge architecture), Draves is often not a big fan of what his sheep-creating collective breathes life into. What he refers to as the “Las Vegas Effect” lead people to choose sheep that are flashy, have lots of bright colors and move fast. This prompted Draves to sift through the sheep himself and pull out the ones he finds aesthetically pleasing. He’s compiled them into limited edition videos that he sells to help fund the not-yet-profitable Electric Sheep.

The fact that sheep evolve on their own means Draves has satisfied his own impetus to explore whether or not computers can create something new, something greater than the sum of their input. “Genetic code,” “evolution,” “creation”...sounds like Draves just might have a touch of God complex. “That’s right,” he told The Creators Project when asked if he was playing God. “I’ve created a universe and the rules for this universe and then inside it sort of has a population that lives there.” He follows that by admitting he wanted to create virtual life, and that “it’s not clear how successful one can be. ...Can computers think? Can a computer be creative?”

And then he starts to get metaphysical for real.

“...is humanity the only possible vehicle for what really amounts to a soul? ...some people believe that all material matter follows the rules of physics, and if you can figure out what physics is, a computer can follow the rules and therefore you can simulate life in a computer. So it really becomes a profound question that we are, as a society, really just starting to struggle with.”

Right now, the Electric Sheep are still just screensavers, albeit evolving and unpredictable screensavers. But what limits are there to the kind of reiterative, informatics cross-breeding underlying their generation? What might be produced when the same process is applied to more functional outputs? What if we woke up one morning and our computers were doing things that we didn’t fully understand.

And so on.

How that might play out is as unpredictable as the sheep. Until it happens, I suppose we’re left merely to wonder...and perhaps dream.

[image credits: created by Brother Lewis, Phssthpok, Bananablob, brood, and cqfd93 at electricsheep.org]

images: electric sheep
video 1: electric sheep 1
video 2: electric sheep 2
video 3: electric sheep 3

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.