A screenshot of City Describer, a Twitter bot that runs off Microsoft's "custom vision" AI technology. Geoff Boeing/City Describer

L.A. looks like "a Cactus." Is that plain wrong? Or is our hubris keeping us from recognizing the profound meaning behind these captions?

Los Angeles. City of Angels. La La Land. Where dreams of fame materialize and evaporate like heat mirages on hot asphalt. This city has served as the muse of surrealist directors, retro-glam pop divas, and visionary rappers. To some, its sprawling sepia landscape evokes yearning and melancholia; for others it is marked by grit and resilience.

Or, you know, it could also be described thusly:

That’s how the Twitter bot aptly named City Describer  *sees* this Reddit-sourced image of L.A. The bot is designed by Geoff Boeing, an urban data wonk at UC Berkeley (whose research and urban data tools we’ve written about in the past) using Microsoft’s open-source “custom vision” AI technology. And man, the bot delivers—although not always in the way you’d think.

Its descriptions of cityscapes around the world range from accurate to delightfully absurd. For one, the bot can see ghosts:

At times, these visual interpretations sound like cheeky, Clickhole-esque disses of city porn. If you consider yourself a connoisseur of urban form, they might annoy you:

Or, you know, if you’re religious. This bot DGAF about your sensibilities:

But by LOLing at these tweets, are we being facetious? Are these misreadings really misreadings? Or is even fledgling AI already making deductions about the human race so profound that our hubris prevents us from recognizing it? (#Neverforget when that Microsoft Twitter bot learned to be super racist, like, within a day.)

Really think about City Describer’s caption for L.A., for a second. The more enlightened among us will perhaps be able to see it for what it really is: an astute distillation for the city’s many complexities—a version of answer “42” to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

>

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. The Cincinnati skyline and river
    Life

    Maps Reveal Where the Creative Class Is Growing

    “The rise of the rest” may soon become a reality as once-lagging cities see growth of creative class employment.

  2. A crowded street outside in Boston
    Life

    Surveillance Cameras Debunk the Bystander Effect

    A new study uses camera footage to track the frequency of bystander intervention in heated incidents in Amsterdam; Cape Town; and Lancaster, England.                            

  3. A migrant laborer rides a bicycle past a residential community in Shanghai.
    Equity

    When Affordable Housing in Shanghai Is a Bed in the Kitchen

    In this sector of the city’s informal housing rental market, as many as 24 people can be crammed into a three-bedroom apartment.

  4. Design

    A Hated Expansion of Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Will Go Ahead

    The city council voted to approve an addition to the historic landmark over criticism that the design is “a travesty” and “frankly grotesque.”

  5. Design

    A First-Rate Waterfront Park Is Transforming a Historic Greek City

    Thessaloniki’s New Waterfront is the centerpiece in an effort to transform the local economy, and other cities are taking notice.

×