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.


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