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. Design

    The Problem With 'Fast-Casual Architecture'

    Washington, D.C., has a huge new waterfront development that’s fun, popular, and easy on the eyes. Is anything wrong with that?

  2. Maps

    Mapping Where Europe's Population Is Moving, Aging, and Finding Work

    Younger people are fleeing rural areas, migrating northward, and having fewer children. Here’s how that’s changing the region.

  3. Transportation

    How Seattle Bucked a National Trend and Got More People to Ride the Bus

    Three experts in three very different positions weigh in on their city’s ridership success.

  4. Transportation

    If You Drive Less Than 10,000 Miles a Year, You Probably Shouldn't Own a Car

    Up to one-quarter of all U.S. drivers might be better off using ride-sharing services instead.

  5. Civic Life

    A Bright Idea to Revive a Neighborhood

    The financial crisis brought (literally) darker times to parts of Athens. Now one neighborhood is fighting to bring light back to the streets.