Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
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:
a view of a cactus pic.twitter.com/BkV0DSinPx— City Describer (@CityDescriber) September 11, 2017
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.
I made this bot. It uses Microsoft's computer vision A.I. to describe photos of cities. Sometimes poetic... sometimes not even close. https://t.co/C33tC1nTiS— Geoff Boeing (@gboeing) September 18, 2017
Its descriptions of cityscapes around the world range from accurate to delightfully absurd. For one, the bot can see ghosts:
a group of people in a city pic.twitter.com/h09P4TRS72— City Describer (@CityDescriber) September 9, 2017
a group of people on a beach pic.twitter.com/qAHe3yEqGO— City Describer (@CityDescriber) September 17, 2017
a close up of person riding a bike down a dirt road pic.twitter.com/bbERwF9e7Y— City Describer (@CityDescriber) September 20, 2017
Christopher Alexander would hate this.https://t.co/HSr5fGkpv6— Geoff Boeing (@gboeing) September 18, 2017
a traffic light hanging from a tree pic.twitter.com/Am9F0ldx1T— City Describer (@CityDescriber) September 10, 2017
a close up of a tree pic.twitter.com/ngCWANsevD— City Describer (@CityDescriber) September 9, 2017
Or, you know, if you’re religious. This bot DGAF about your sensibilities:
a stack of flyers on a table pic.twitter.com/S8M3wNWf2g— City Describer (@CityDescriber) September 14, 2017
a table full of food pic.twitter.com/it9320OKfS— City Describer (@CityDescriber) September 14, 2017
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.
There is a fundamental truth to describing Los Angeles this way.https://t.co/KPHN7YYsSH— Geoff Boeing (@gboeing) September 19, 2017