New Ways to Dream Electric Sheep: An Interview with Scott Draves
Scott Draves, a.k.a. Spot, is the brains behind the crowdsourced iterative screensaver known as the Electric Sheep, a continually evolving abstract animation with over 450,000 participants. Electric Sheep can be installed on any ordinary PC or Mac and boots up once the computer goes to sleep (hence, "Do androids dream of electric sheep?") Once connected to the Electric Sheep server, computers join a distributed network to form a virtual supercomputer that renders complex animations. Individual Sheep animations are voted up or down by participants, and the more popular sheep live longer and reproduce according to a genetic algorithm with mutation and cross-over.
ZKM, one of the premier institutions of digital art, awarded the Android version of Electric Sheep the Special Prize for Cloud Art earlier in 2012. The new iPad app was just released in the Apple Store this month and offers an even more interactive, higher-resolution interface for the Sheep. The iPad touch screen offers the options of changing the speed and freezing playback, "collecting" and remixing Sheep you like, and sharing them with friends over email or facebook. There's even an "Airplay" feature to show the Sheep on an external big-screen device. The description advises that it is "excellent for lean-back: meditation, relaxation, and visual dreaming at any time." Tune in and see where the evolving current takes you.
I recently met with Spot in his Manhattan apartment to discuss the philosophy behind his groundbreaking projects; his new apps for the iPad and Android; and his ambitions for a future where man and machine co-evolve to their fullest potential.
Neşe Devenot: The Electric Sheep have begun venturing out from their screen saver pasture. What are the recent media that you've been exploring?
Scott Draves: We're currently working on a clothing line. We started making shirts in 2010 -- we made 144 of them and they sold out in 36 hours. At the end of 2011 we made a new batch of 250 and those sold out too. We still have scarves for sale on my scottdraves.com website. It's a recent idea. I'm not really that into fashion per se, but I'm trying to find ways of supporting the art.
What I like doing is improving the software and working with the community. There's a whole artistic philosophical mission around the Electric Sheep, which we're going to be talking about, and that's what I want to do. So I'm trying to find ways to sell the vision, and that's actually harder than it sounds. What I do is really inherently digital, and really about software and code, and part of my process is open source -- which is free software, which means anyone can download it, so that part is not for sale. What open source does is give me that kind of participatory element, which is something I'm really into, but it's in conflict with the sort of normal art world practice of focusing on the exclusive product.
For me, there are these two versions -- the popular screensaver version and then the high-end limited edition pieces. And now I'm finding new, middle grounds, trying to turn [the Electric Sheep] into material objects -- in the case of clothing, literally material. I'm finding ways to cross over from the digital, symbolic realm into the physical realm where it can't be copied and where I can sell something and get paid, and then have the time to make more art. That's the idea.
On my wall here I have "Dreams in High Fidelity 1," an example of the high-end art, which I made in 2005. It seems like a while ago in internet years, but really the project has been going on for a lot longer than that. "Electric Sheep" started in 1999 and the Flame algorithm -- which is the mathematical basis, the precursor project -- goes back to the early 1990's, so it's really been a lifelong pursuit.
It kind of looks like a phoenix moving its feathers in hyperspace -- kind of like a multidimensional phoenix.
The one that was just up is one of the ones I consider to be kind of like a bird, and actually feathers are something I see a lot of. If you look at one of the prints in here [gestures at the wall], the one that we use as a logo -- there's a wing. And one of my pieces is actually called "The Firebird," and I picked that name specifically in reference to Stravinsky's music -- the Firebird Suite.
What was the significance of Stravinsky?
He was really the origin of modern music, in the early 20th century when they were trying to throw off the reins of classicism and romanticism, basically embracing freedom and personal expression. I see myself as doing the same thing while trying to push the art world in that direction, too -- throwing off the reins of the material world and entering into a more abstract or mathematical or even spiritual world, and making the connections. Part of what I'm doing is trying to create life in digital form. And life -- that's spirit or soul or essence (there's all these different ways of talking about it) -- is essentially about throwing off the material and getting into the spiritual. There's a lot of ways of doing it and this is the way with mathematics -- computer power, these algorithms, Darwinian evolution, artificial intelligence.... There are a lot of different techniques and they're all sort of in the pot, being stirred up, in order to make this thing.
Where did the idea for Electric Sheep come from?
It started in 1999, so, it's thirteen years old now. It's a big system; there's no one flash of insight that made it appear to be a finished product in my mind. It has really accumulated over a long time. Because I work with a community, I get input from a lot of people. It's no longer just me. But there was a point when it started, and I remember that very clearly. I was hanging out with a friend of mine in San Francisco, and I had just gotten this a video tape in the mail. It was of the Flame algorithm, animated, and it was made by somebody else. Since the code was open source, it was on the web. People were using it to make their own art, even back then.
The Flame algorithm is the visual language -- the algorithm or the mathematics that actually produces the image. In this sense, my art is really different from most computer graphics. Most computer graphics are made by drawing lines and circles, and polygons and shapes in 3D. It's based on the metaphor of architecture, or drafting, and I wanted to go beyond that. When you do it that way you end up with mechanical shapes, because it's a mechanical process.
The Flame algorithm works by solving an equation, and it is a recursive set equation. What I mean by that is -- every pixel is a variable, and there are a million pixels, so there are a million variables in the equation. It's very complicated and takes a really long time to solve. The upside of this algorithm is that you end up with these organic, really cool, fluid shapes. The downside is that it takes an hour to draw just one frame of animation, and it's thirty frames per second -- and that is today. Ten years ago, it was even harder. So, even though I had done a little bit of animation and I had done a number of still images, I hadn't made anything like this.
Then I got this videotape in the mail that had maybe ten minutes of really nice animation. I thought, "Wow -- that's awesome." I could never do that with my PC, because it would take around 6 months, and this was right around when the SETI@Home project came out. As far as I know, that was the first distributed computing project. The idea for SETI@Home was that when you're not using your computer, a screen saver comes on and then your computer goes to work searching through radio telescope data for a signal from the aliens. So rather than just idling with a normal screen saver, your computer goes to work doing the search.
That had just come out and I was talking to my friend and we had the idea, "Oh my God. Let's take that idea and use it for the rendering of these animations, and bring them to life." Within a month or two after we had the idea, I quit my job and I had a one month break before I started my next thing. For one week, I did nothing, basically; for the next week, I wrote the first version of Electric Sheep; and for one week I went to Burning Man (for the second time, at that point). It was the first time I really experienced it because the first time I went it was really brief and I just caught the end of it, but I knew I really had to check it out! The next year I went for real. After Burning Man I spent one week recovering, and then -- boom. I was back to regular life. That was how the Electric Sheep started.
The Flame algorithm, which is what draws the pictures for the Electric Sheep, works by solving an equation. It's really slow, and it's hard to describe. First off, it's a combination of a fractal and particle system. It uses billions of little dots that move according to the equation, and the dots collect to form the image. The dots can reconfigure to form any shape -- that's part of how it gets its fluid nature. It isn't based on big, preexisting shapes. It's made of, essentially, atoms -- like we are.
What happens is, they move according to the equation, which are a collection of transformations of the plane. A transformation of the plane is actually something we're all really familiar with: functions like "scale," "rotate," and "translate," like in Photoshop. Those are the simple ones -- the linear transformations. What you're seeing is the resonance between these transformations. So, for example, if you just translate something, it'll shoot off into infinity. If you rotate it, it will spin. If you just scale something, it will shrink down into a dot. So, each of those things, independently, doesn't really do much. But if you do them all at the same time, they interact with each other and they form a field, and that's the images you're seeing. Those are very simple transformations of the plane, but the space of all transformations is much larger. You can imagine things like bending, twisting, cutting, rearranging, crinkling, etc. There are an infinite number of ways of manipulating a surface.
And so, we just threw a whole bunch of those into the equation, and you can see them when they happen. If you watch the software you can learn to recognize them. There's a lot that that goes on if you get into the Sheep. You can start to learn it and understand it, and you can actually create your own, and that's part of the process. We have crowdsource. After I released that software, I made a version for the GIMP, and then Kai's Power Tools made a version for Photoshop. There were other versions but they didn't have a good way of controlling them. They were based on mutation and discovery -- like a genetic explorer, basically, which is something I'm really into. So that's what I made, because I like this process of discovery, as opposed to design. That's what got me into computers and art in the first place.
How did you first became interested in fractals, more generally?
Well actually I'm not interested in "fractals" per se, and I don't consider myself a "fractal artist." Those are people who download software from the internet and make pictures. And by "fractal" people normally mean Mandlebrots and Julias, which are low-dimensional and get monotonous. By contrast, Flames have a genetic code with thousands of parameters, and they can look like all kinds of things. Now that there are people who use the Flame algorithm, it's becoming a little more respectable, but there's still a big difference between what I do, which is writing software, connecting people together, and opening up new techniques; and what they do which is point and click. Animation versus still image makes a big difference too. But I am interested in the larger concept of complex systems, and what is now called generative art. What I like to use is the word "emergence." It's all about how pattern emerges from chaos and random stuff.
I started programming when I was a kid. I was just doing simple things and teaching myself with books and friends. It was a form of self entertainment. I did it at home, alone, in the dark -- and I still like the dark, but the point is -- most people learn computers for their job or to do something useful, but for me it was just fun. I wanted to be entertained. It wasn't entertaining for me to have the computer do what I told it to do -- for me to design some picture and then have the computer draw that picture. If you started with a picture, and then you end up with that picture, then you didn't really get anywhere! You can say the computer drew it, but who cares, really? So for me, what I wanted to do was to get out a picture that I didn't put in. I wanted to get out more than what I put in. I wanted the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. I wanted that something to emerge from the machine. I wanted the computer to talk to me.
That actually relates to another question I wanted to ask you. Have you ever considered your work in an artistic lineage linking back to John Cage's "chance procedures"? You're interested in giving up control and surprising the creator, which situates your work in terms similar to his.
Totally. John Cage, William S. Burroughs (especially), Brion Gysin.... You know, I wasn't into those guys as a kid, but I figured it out later. I feel that as part of my intellectual heritage, at least, on the process side. Another thread -- on the painting side, or the visual arts side -- I see some of my forebears or inspirations to include Jackson Pollock, for example. Because for one thing, it's abstract. There's a visual sort of connection: he's got squiggles and I've got squiggles. And, in fact, in his paintings, you can measure them and they are fractal dimensions.
If you do a bunch of random squiggles and measure it, it's not a fractal -- it's just squiggles. But his stuff has a kind of organization, a principle or kind of flavor to it that is of fractal dimension. Richard Taylor is the guy who studied and discovered that. If you look him up you can read all about it. So there's a visual component that's related, but the more intellectual component is, again -- he was giving up control! The whole abstract expressionism had a flavor of that. It was no longer precise rendering. He's no longer putting the paint exactly where he wants to; he's flinging the paint and letting it land where it may, so I feel for that.
Another painter I really like, who I feel is one of my fathers, is Kandinsky. His stuff looks pretty different from mine, so it's not a direct connection, but he was very abstract, at least for a part of his career. He was really into the spiritual or philosophical aspect of that. He thought that the painting would take on a life of its own and that was sort of his objective. It was to make not just an object, it was a spiritual thing. But his spiritualism is pretty different from mine.
In what way?
Well, I'm not an expert on his life story, but I think he was spiritual in the more normal sense of the word -- not exactly "ghosts," but Ouija boards. Color was really important to him and color is really important to me -- but, really, it was this notion of the visual language. The spiritualism he was into was that of the supernatural, and I'm not into that. My spirituality is based on organization and meaning within the bounds of the material world. But he had the notion of the visual language and that is something that I've really latched onto.
So what is the core component of the visual language that the Sheep represent?
The basic process of the Electric Sheep is the mathematics, and then Darwinian evolution and collective intelligence. We talked about the mathematics, which is solving the equation and the visual language. So let's talk about the Darwinian evolution.
With the Electric Sheep, in order to render these images it takes the genetic code of the sheep -- of the image -- and it puts it out to all the connected computers and each one renders one frame of information and they send it back to the server. All the computers are working together as a supercomputer to create the art, because it's so computationally intensive. It's a virtual supercomputer of whoever's screen saver is on at that moment. It's using that collective horsepower of the internet, but it's more than that -- it's tapping into the people behind the computers, too. This is something that SETI@home doesn't do.
How this works is that as you're watching the screen saver you can interact with it. In particular, you can vote on it. We use the roman justice system to vote, which is basically thumbs up for life, and thumbs down for death. The sheep that get voted down disappear and die, and the sheep that get voted up mate with each other and reproduce. There's the genetic algorithm, and that's one of the things that's remarkable -- the Flame algorithm.
You can take two of these equations and put them next to each other and do a crossover. A crossover is a textual thing, it's actually another form of cut and paste. Like with Burroughs, where you cut and paste different parts of the two equations together to make one equation that has a patchwork. Then, remarkably, when you render the result you get something that has a family resemblance, so you can see -- "oh, that color came from the mother," or "that shape came from the father and here's that sort of squiggly thing that's now multiplied more times and smaller or bigger, this or that." And that's unique. It's finding a computer language that evolves, which is part of the magic that makes this thing work.
As the Sheep transform, they filter through a singularity. Singularity is the point which is the birth of the universe. In my art, it's not just a beginning point but also an end point. It's something it goes through -- the art is reborn. When it happens, when the shapes return to the singularity, it explodes again from a point.
So that kind of family resemblance comes with randomness, and variation, plus that voting selection. Essentially it's democratic -- everyone's voting. Every vote is essentially a lottery ticket for reproduction. Those are the ingredients for Darwinian evolution, and so the flock -- the sheep, or the images -- evolve in order to satisfy human desire. Human aesthetics. The people get what they want.
But there's more to it than that. More than just evolution, there's also intelligent design, and this is where the Apophysis program comes in.
What is it?
It's a term from plant anatomy. It's like a bulge. It has multiple meanings, I think it's also the name for a spider. That was a program that was made by the editor for the Electric Sheep. There's actually a bunch of them (e.g., Oxidizer and Fr0st) -- they're all based on my work and my language but they're by different people, because it's open source. Other people have gone in and built upon and expanded my work. And Apophysis was a breakthrough in that direction. With that program you can open up the genetic code and you can see its skeleton, as a bunch of triangles. You can manipulate it and make your own shape. It's hard to use and it's not intuitive -- but there are a lot of people who are into it. If you're persistent with it you can develop an intuition.
It reminds me of how in "The Matrix" film, some people are able to look at the screens of symbols and see what's going on inside the Matrix, just by looking at the computers.
That's right. There are some people who just know, like -- if you flip that one, then it will give you that thing that you need. I don't do that; that's not my process. I'm not the designer in that sense of the word. I want to create the universe and then let it happen.
Lots of people use the program, and not just to make Electric Sheep. If you go on Deviant Art, you'll see there are thousands of people who use Apophysis -- to make a wallpaper, prints for their wall, or stuff to mail to a friend. All kinds of stuff. It's become like a genre or a style. It's based on a Flame algorithm.
There are some places where it's become a trend, like for physics book covers. I went to the bookstore at the Harvard Co-op about a month ago because I was sort of trapped in Cambridge and needed to find a gift for a friend. I was going through and I found literally five books that had Flames on their covers -- including Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design, which has a big one on the cover. It's not just physics, though -- a bunch of Hollywood movies use it, and album covers. Paul Simon used one on his last album. Not even a minor element -- the total design on the cover is a huge Flame. There's a large community of people who are using this algorithm to make stuff. They design sheep.
They can't make animations very well -- that takes along time. What you can do, however, is you can see a preview of just one frame, and get a low-quality thumbnail to see how it moves. Then you can upload it into the system. Some of the sheep are made by the genetic algorithm and some of them are crowd sourced from the users. There are different levels of interaction. The first level is most of my users. They probably haven't read the instructions and they don't even vote. They're passive; they just run it. They like what they see, and that's good enough for them. The next level is, "Okay, I'm going to interact." You just pick up or down. It's very easy: you just push the button. And then the next level of interactivity is, "I'm going to design my own sheep." If you're really into it, like some of the programmers (who are writing the software, rather than just using it), then you become part of the team. That's the ultimate level of interaction.
And that's part of the reason why open source is important. It's a combination of human design and artificial intelligence. The programmers are collaborating and competing, because if the human design is popular, it will reproduce -- it will mate with the genetic algorithm. People can see a sheep that they like -- someone else's design, or one from the A.I. -- and then they can download it, open it up and do their own version of it. Anybody can riff off of anybody else, but they're competing for the audience. Everyone's always getting rated. The people who do this are watching their sheep -- it's a total popularity contest.
So you can keep track of the sheep that you start?
Oh yeah, the server has a database of everything. They're all kept; everything is kept track of. This is including the family trees. You can click on every single sheep and see its lineage, its popularity.
That must be a ton of data, because of how many years this has been going on.
Yeah, but the hard disks are so huge these days that even a hundred thousand images doesn't add up to that much. The genetic codes are only a couple kilobytes each. If you have a million of them, that's a couple gigabytes. That's nothing. The animations do add up, so I don't have all of those anymore. I do keep them all now, but I didn't use to. It seemed too much; I had some funny ideas. I sort of wish I had kept them, but I thought, "There are new ones every day. Why would I keep them? Tomorrow I'll have another one." I wasn't thinking about the historical record aspect of things.
It's been running for a long time. It's not completely continuous in the sense that we do upgrade the software periodically. If I change the system, I have to kill all the sheep, and start a fresh flock -- like the epic flood. Those are called generations. Right now we're at generation 244, but it's not completely consecutive -- those are more like ID numbers. I didn't go through all of them from 1 to 244, because a lot of them are stillborn. Sometimes I change the software and release it, and it doesn't work. I'll have to reboot the server and keep messing with it, so I might go through ten of them really fast. And I think at one point it actually increased the hundreds. I was going from 0 to 1-2-3-4-5, and for some reason I made a big change, so I went to 100, and then I went up to 200. Of the major generations -- big flocks, with thousands and thousands of sheep -- there's really only been about ten. So one generations lasts about a year, and this one is about to end. We're about to go from 244 to 245. It's a major upgrade. It's going to be way better, I'm super excited.
When is that happening?
It's been a month away for a long time. I don't announce release dates in advance.
I know you were talking about surprises before and I was wondering if there have been any notable things that have happened since the sheep have taken on a life of their own. Have there been any specific trends or things that you that you didn't expect to happen, because of the input from all these different people and factors?
There's been all kinds of that -- and trends is a good word, because it's kind of like fashion. Some mutation or some human design does something new and cool, and then it's everywhere. I don't predict or control them at all. There have been a lot of them. I don't really understand how they work anymore; it's beyond my comprehension. It's really exceeded me, as the artist.
There is another interesting point I wanted to make about democracy and popularity....
Speaking of popularity, I was actually going to ask you to explain "the Las Vegas Effect" and its implications for the aesthetics of the masses.
Right, that is very important, and that's what I want to bring up.
Using the popular vote in order to run the algorithm is like a double-edged sword. It's great to tap into that collective intelligence and surely, it's automatic. That ends up being an amazing thing. But on the other hand, the result ends up appealing to the lowest common denominator. So the flashy, brightly colored sheep often get the most votes. That's the problem with democracy.
That's not what I find to be truly beautiful. I let the screen saver do its thing. I don't force it to follow my aesthetic. I have some influence, but I pretty much let it go because that's what the people want. So I let them have it.
So partly a reaction to that, I created these curated versions of the sheep. These are what appeal to me personally. They also respond to two other issues with the screen saver. One issue is that it's limited by bandwidth. Computers have gotten way faster, but our network connections have not gotten way faster -- and that's partly because of the regulatory backwardness of our government. Essentially, we have monopolies that just sit on there and charge us, and since we are limited by bandwidth, that means I can't deliver high-resolution sheep because the higher the resolution, the more megabytes there are, so they would take forever to download.
And while having a robot army rendering for you is great, having a robot army all downloading from your server is super expensive. It's like I'm running YouTube but without ads; it's free for you, but it's not free for me. We get a lot of philanthropic help on that front from Archive.org, but they have limits too. So I have a budget there and the resolution is limited, but sometimes I want to see what it looks like all the way. And one day I had the idea of making it high resolution and not giving it all away. I don't know why I didn't think of that before. Then I could turn the lemon of the bandwidth limitation into the lemonade of being able to charge for it and make it limited edition, embracing the limitation. That brings in money, which helps solve the other problem of making the system self-supporting.
That was the origin of "Dreams in High Fidelity," and the limited-edition branch of the Electric Sheep. It's curated by me to satisfy my aesthetic; it isn't the popular one. It's high resolution, high bandwidth. And it's high resolution in time, not just space. What I mean by that is they're really slow. The screensavers are like five seconds per sheep. You can make them slower, but then they get blurry. With these, they are super slow. I've found that as time goes by, my art gets slower and slower and becomes more and more like a painting. I've been moving away from that sort of stroboscopic aspect of grabbing for attention and moving towards something that's more like earning your attention.
I spent a lot of time performing in San Francisco as a V.J. doing live video performances for dance parties, sometimes called raves. In that environment, my job was to make people dance, and so the strobe light is my competition. There is an aspect of that. You want something energetic. I have some non-electric, totally different styles that are much more like that. Originally, the sheep worked fast -- you could sort of dance to them.
I'm actually about to release part of the new version of the sheep when I go up to 245. I'm going to split off a new version which is going to be higher resolution. It's going to be slower in the screen saver, and higher resolution, at a cost. It'll be a subscription service. So you can still get a free version, but if you pay a few bucks you can get something better. Because ultimately, this stuff is expensive.
I just sold one piece to a guy on Wall Street for $10,000. He's going to put it on an 85-inch flat screen. Carnegie Mellon University bought the other [version of that piece].
And that's where you went?
That's where I got my PHD. That was my grad school. That's how they knew me and knew that I was an artist. A couple of years ago, Bill Gates very generously gave them some millions of dollars, and they built a new building. Bill Gates was really the seed funder. When I went to school there we were in the worst kind of building you could imagine. It was like a concrete bunker. Seriously -- it was from the 70's, a giant slab of concrete and that was it. There were hardly any windows. Everyone hated it.
Finally, now, they have an amazing space. When they were building it, they called me up and said, "We want your art in the building." And so they commissioned a piece from me. That was several years ago, and they liked it, so they came back to me about a month ago saying they wanted to get another one. So they bought the other edition of this one and put it up in the hall.
So this was an edition of two. Basically, I'm going to sell this one twice and then that's it. The other one, "Dreams in High Fidelity," was an edition of four, so I could sell them four times.
Can you explain your choice of name?
Dreams in High Fidelity? Well, dreams, because electric sheep are dreaming. The name electric sheep comes from the science fiction book "Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," which was the basis for the movie "Blade Runner." The artwork isn't really about the book or the movie, but I liked the idea of the computer dreaming, because when the computer goes to sleep the screensaver goes on, so -- it's the computer's dream. The whole project has had this kind of running joke, metaphor, or pun of the sheep -- the idea of this dream. You can take the metaphor pretty far, so I like it.
The idea is that these are the dreams, and then "high fidelity" as in high fidelity music is higher in quality, higher resolution, higher bandwidth. That's where I got the name "Dreams In High Fidelity." There are the ones called "Generation 244," which is named after the period of time of the generation. (I told you how I reboot the universe periodically, and that was the number at the time that I made this one. And that's just following in the footsteps of all the abstract painters who number their paintings. The major pieces, because they have a lot of stuff in them, are like whole panoplies of ideas and shapes and colors and styles, and as you watch this you'll see lots of things. But I do make the smaller pieces that actually have stories.
In a lot of abstract, "conceptual" art, there's a certain amount of irony, or a requirement of taking a context into consideration that is outside of the artwork itself. But I see your work as being conceptual more in the John Cage sense, where there is this element of having a vision about the nature of reality, and an optimistic perspective on the possibilities inherent in the universe.
That's where I'm coming from; that's right. It is different from a lot of what's happening in the art world in that way. Most of the art world is very ironic and critical and referential and incestuous, and I'm something of an outsider. I didn't get an MFA. My art is optimistic and it's pro-technology, which is really rare in the art world. Aesthetically, there's an important critical aspect of it, which we talked about.
There's some pro-technology art that's kind of nihilistic, like, "It's good for man to be destroyed and go into this kind of machine," but then you're thinking in terms of a binary and saying that the machine is just a machine.
That's right. The machine is not just a machine, and man and machine are merging into something which I think is bigger than either of us. Message wise, I want to show people that computers can be soft, and beautiful. It's not just that hard mechanical Terminator. Virtual reality is not just "The Matrix." The traditional conception of the machine is masculine, but this is soft. This can be feminine. Technology is totally changing our world and expanding; computers are suddenly everywhere. People are naturally afraid of that. If we treat it as "the other," the different, then the merger can be chaotic and frightful. Maybe there will be a war. But it's more like, "That's us!" So we should accept it and love it, because we're really the same underneath. That essence of life, that spirituality, can exist in both places, and if we do it right, good things will happen.
Is there a particular community that has been most receptive to your work, like the art world, or technology world, or psychedelic community?
I would say the technology community and the psychedelic community have definitely been most adoptive. The art world is more conservative, and so, we're making great progress. And that's what I'm pursuing right now: museums, in particular.
I was surprised to read that you hadn't seen the script for "The Spirit Molecule" documentary when you made the visuals for it, is that true? Because they seemed to fit so well with what they were used for.
That's true, kudos to Mitch [Schultz, the director]. That's really his baby; I only had a small part in that film. He just called me one day and told me about the film, and I totally support what he's doing, so I made some stuff. I made a bunch of stuff. We had a back and forth, and he was involved in picking it out. And then there was a visual effects specialist who worked on the film and edited that stuff together to go with it. He had a hand in it as well. There was back and forth, and they knew what they were looking for. I gave them ideas, and they picked the ones that would work with what they were doing -- because as you can see, the sheep can look like all kinds of things.
Do you have any bold, long-term ambitions, in particular, that you're headed towards?
Well, the bold ambition is to create life in digital form. I don't see that as a binary result where it's total success or total failure; it's something that we can do incrementally. It's something that we're achieving bit by bit. And how far are we there? There's no quantitative way to measure life. That's actually something I really realized when I was reading [Gregory] Bateson. I had a kind of crisis of conscience where I was like, "Oh my God, what if everything I'm doing is meaningless? I can't really prove that it's real or that it's alive or that it's beautiful or that it means anything." I was reading his book called "Steps to an Ecology of Mind." That was the one that did it for me. That gave me the confidence that even if I couldn't quantify or define what I was doing, I could trust myself to recognize it when I saw it. I could take it one day at a time, to use the cliché.
But really, I think there are some important milestones that we haven't achieved. In particular, one thing that the Electric Sheep isn't now, is -- it isn't independent. In fact, it's parasitic. It is life and it's feeding on me, right? It's like a two-year-old; I have to keep it alive. One of my long-term goals is to make it independent, and part of that is giving it a body incorporation, and giving it a "metabolism" so it can generate its own energy. That's part of what the subscription system is for -- so that then it can pay for its own servers and it can have its own bank account. So that, ultimately, it can run itself and make its own decisions so that when I die, it goes on. I don't just mean somebody else takes it over. I mean, really -- it's basically just out there, living on the internet, in cyberspace. I think that's possible.
Part of our plan for this "metabolism" is the subscription services. There is going to be one for the screensaver -- for the desktop, or PC. But we're also doing an iPad and Android application. We've made it interactive, so you can go forwards and backwards, and start over from a singularity.
Are there other people who work on it, too? Do you have a team?
Yes, I have a team. A long time ago, this became much more than I could do myself. Originally, it was open source; it was all volunteers, and people just helped out because they loved it. Then, eventually, I started making money, so it made sense to share and also to start paying people. There is a lot of stuff that needs to be done that nobody wants to do. Everybody wants to do the fun stuff, but then there's also the difficult work. Basically I handle the server side and management.
Can you still vote for the sheep on the iPad and phone versions?
Yeah, there are a bunch of controls. You can share sheep by posting them to your Facebook page, or you can Tweet them, or save them for whatever you want to use them for. It takes a picture of the frame. Then, on the internet, you can see the sheep in filmstrip form, so you can find the particular one that you like.
Does the flock change all the time? Can you choose to keep particular sheep?
Yea on the iPad version you pick exactly which sheep you want. It's a somewhat different mode of interaction because it's no longer a screensaver. You can play with it and even perform.
Then there's the phone version. This is the Android phone, which has something called "live wallpaper," which means you can put a program in your wallpaper. So you see how it's moving? It's the sheep. It's slow, because I didn't want to make it too distracting and I didn't want it to kill your battery. But it does everything that the sheep do and if you touch it, it changes.
Does this also download new sheep?
Yep, it does, and you can also run it as an app. So that's the wallpaper version, but if you want to interact with it, the app has a foreground, so you can bring up the control panel and vote. You can share it with email. I'll just email this one to you. "For Nese," let's see -- "a sheep for you." So, you can do the basic stuff. It's not as interactive as the iPad, like you can't do that swipe and touch to control the speed, but you can go forward and backward, and you can go to the webpage for the sheep you like.
They all have their own webpage?
Yep. This does that, too, and you can see it takes a while because it's still loading up, but that's the one we were just looking at. Can you see how it did that? And then, you can go and see a particular sheep's family tree. You can see this particular sheep -- the genetic algorithm -- was designed by Brood. Then you can look at its lineage, where you see you can see its family tree. So that is the children of these sheep, going back many generations.
So Brood designed the original sheep for this family?
Brood means -- it's a pun! It was created through Darwinian evolution. This one, I believe, actually was designed by a person, I happen to know her. Her name's Sylvie, she's French. That one actually had several children, quite a few. You can explore. The web browser on this thing works better
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