Face in a Cloud: How ideologues are like Google’s Deep Dream neural networks

Ok, that's definitely a little weird.
Ok, there’s definitely something a little odd about this cat.

Technology is weird. In their attempts to build neural network software that can process images and recognize objects in them, Google’s neural network researchers have created software that hallucinates, transforming mundane photographs of things like people and pets into bizarre fever dreams filled with strange mutant dog creatures and, for some reason, an excess of eyes.

Here’s one “before” pic of an ordinary kid:


And here’s what Google’s Deep Dream software turned it into:


So what on earth is going on here? Well, Google “trains” the neural networks by feeding it countless pictures of assorted animals, plants, buildings, faces, you name it, priming the software to spot anything that looks like, say, an eye or a dog or a bear.

To get the software to start “dreaming,” as I understand it, the researchers program it to enhance the patterns it thinks it sees in the images they upload. Then they run the enhanced picture back through the software, eventually ending up with weird and fantastic pics in which, as in the picture above, a blurry bit in the background has been transformed into a tiny staring bear.

Now they’ve set it up so you can upload your own pictures to see what the software will make of it. I haven’t tried it myself with any of my pics, but here are some of the weird hallucinations it’s generated based on the photos other people have uploaded.

A nebula becomes … a space dog with three noses and seven legs?


A nice doggy chewing on a toy grows a bunch of extra eyes as his toy turns into a multi-legged bird


Another nice doggy:


A nice kitty, sporting an eyeball on its nose, with a bit of snow in the background becoming a tiny six legged wolf?


This started out as a picture of two women watching a fire.



As you can see, Deep Dream has a bit of a dog obsession. Indeed, here it turns a pic of this cat sleeping …


… into a pair of multi-headed, multi-legged dog creatures.


You can find an ever-growing assortment of other Deep Dream pics here, though the site is now getting spammed with NSFW images. If you need a more detailed explanation, with more examples, Gizmodo has one here. And for some especially freaky pics, see here. To easily make your own, check out the Dreamscope app.

So what does any of this have to do with ideologues? Well, like Google’s neural network, we human beings are designed by evolution to find patterns in everything we see and hear; this ability enables us to quickly and efficiently make sense of the world around us. But it can also lead us to find patterns that aren’t there — the proverbial faces we see in the clouds, for example.

Deep Dream shows us what can happen when pattern recognition gets the best of us — like the software, we can conjure elaborate visions out of pretty much nothing at all. That’s how conspiracy theorists look at the world, finding “evidence” of elaborate conspiracies pretty much everywhere they look.

If you want to see just how weird this can get, look at some of the countless YouTube videos that present video glitches in news footage as “evidence” that news anchors and politicians are routinely “shape-shifting” into reptiles live on air, for what supposed reason I couldn’t tell you.

As anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time is well aware, this kind of “pattern recognition gone berserk” is common amongst the people I write about, from Men’s Rights activists imagining vast feminist “multibillion$$” conspiracies against men to the far-right GamerGaters and white supremacists who’ve managed to convince themselves that a Nickelodeon sitcom about a cheerleader-turned-quarterback is really a perverse “Cultural Marxist” attempt to sell “racial cuckoldry” to children.

Then again, I’m not sure any of these ideologues will ever be able to come up with anything quite so bizarre as the following clip, which is what happens when you run the film clip of an already hallucinatory film — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — through Google’s Deep Dream.

Warning: After watching this you may not be able to sleep for a week.

And here for the hell of it is the Audio Bullys’ song Face in a Cloud, featuring extended samples of Joe Cocker’s “Marjorine.”

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Leisha Young
6 years ago

“you couldn’t handle that shit on strong acid man”

6 years ago

Ugh, I had to share the creepiest ones that I’ve come across so far.

This one isn’t so bad (Haha! Ha!)… until you look on the bookshelf just above the guy’s shoulder. To me, it looks like a girl’s head and a dog’s head. And I have no idea how it came up with the castle on a green bubble in a ripple thing going on in the upper right… I mean, that area is pretty much a simple gradient in the original.

And this one is just… yikes! Their faces melted!

I hope you like dogs!

That sure is a crowded park you’re camping in, Mr. Snakeleg.

6 years ago
Reply to  Nes


Those are amazing!

A lot of the Deep Dream pics remind me of migraine aura art, especially scotomas and fortification structures.

Conclusion? Google gets migraines!

See some aura art here:

EJ (The Other One)
EJ (The Other One)
6 years ago

Audio Bullys? David, you have good taste in obscure electronic music.

6 years ago

Scaly: The picture they used is exactly what I see for a few hours every time I get a fever! The pattern is slightly finer but still, very very similar.

6 years ago

AWESOME!!! I must give it a try!

6 years ago

Well, that was expectedly disturbing. I especially liked the F&LiLV clip.

And yes, shoggoths. Now we know what HPL’s dreams were like.

6 years ago

I agree with scalyllama about how it looks kind of like migraine auras (lucky me, I can get scintillating scotomas but don’t have to deal with the nauseating pain, just a dull ache behind one eye) crossed with a Cyriak animation. Any Cyriak animation. They’re all weird.

6 years ago

I didn’t know migraine aura art was a thing. Thanks for the link scalyllama! I just started getting migraine auras a few months ago and it freaked me out so bad until I found out what it was.

These images are cool. I don’t love the idea of creating actual AI. Just seems like there is no way we won’t screw it up terribly.

To tie it back into MRAs, I wonder how this impacts their desire for robowives, if they end up having dreams like this.

6 years ago
Reply to  amavra

You’re welcome!

I’ve only had a few visual auras in my life, but I learnt about them from reading the book “Migraine” by the incredible Oliver Sacks. I highly recommend it for anyone who endures migraines.

Re: AI, if it’s going to destroy us, the seeds are already sown. Best bet is to work hard to develop it constructively, rather than destructively.

The images are from just one possible confit of the AI though – there are apparently different ways of setting up the layers. Google made the code open source and the website we’ve been using has a particular config. I will post the link to the Google blog post on it, if I can find it.

6 years ago

The images are from just one possible confit of the AI though

We’ve barely even invented AI and we’re already making it into gourmet cooking?

6 years ago
Reply to  katz

I typed “config”!


6 years ago

I’ve only had a few visual auras in my life, but I learnt about them from reading the book “Migraine” by the incredible Oliver Sacks.

Sacks is Beloved’s favorite psychology writer.

He also has terminal liver cancer, so yeah.

6 years ago
Reply to  Falconer

I’m pretty cut up about Sacks’ liver cancer. It’s a terrible way to go for anyone. And we lose all that wisdom and wit. He does a lot of speaking as well as writing and he’s always fascinating to listen to.

6 years ago

It’s like Pratchett. Far too soon, and the only thing we can do is toast him now and as long as he is remembered.

6 years ago

Scented Hard Chairs: But there’s still a bit of a dog face to the left in the pic… The AI just couldn’t finish it without putting a dog in there!

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