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Electric Sheep

September 21, 2010

Have you ever woken from a dream that has struck you as profound? What about a dream that terrifies you out of sleep? Or one those sexy dreams that you wish you could never leave? What are dreams? What are they’re purpose? Are we the only ones to dream?

One thing we can say for sure is that there is no universally agreed-upon biological definition of dreaming. It is unknown as to where in the brain that dreams originate which is very curious. What’s even more curious is that we are not the only species that dreams.

Animals dream. This is a fact. Anyone who has ever owned a dog can testify to that fact that dogs often chase things in their dreams. But why do they dream? What is the evolutionary purpose or drive behind these dreams? This question is almost impossible to answer, as dreams are so elusive and difficult to observe. Any reporting on the subject of dreams is always done in 2nd hand evidence. And how exactly is a dog going to elaborate on a particularly wonderful dream it just had chasing that cat up the tree?

What if we take the question one step further, towards machines and A.I. Will robots dream of electric sheep? Phillip K. Dick once asked that very question in 1968 when he wrote the science fiction story that would later become Blade Runner, widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. Though his story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” differed greatly from Blade Runner, it tackled many difficult concepts dealing with the differences between humans and animals and also humans and machines.

This story was so profound that it inspired Scott Draves and a team of engineers to create a freeware program in 1999 called “Electric Sheep”. This program is a computer screen saver at its heart, but uses complex evolving fractal algorithms to generate random fractal patterns and animations that almost make it seem like your computer is in a dream state when idle.

This program incorporates the Internet into its functioning and once loaded will download “sheep” from the central server and start to mate and evolve them. This program has a huge following with over forty-five thousand clients downloading new sheep every day.

The computer using the program isn’t actually dreaming of course, but rather rendering a complex algorithm visually. Our interpretations of those patterns are very curious though. You may find yourself lost in the visual pattern for quite a long time before shaking yourself awake and wiping the drool off your shirt. Why does this simple program effect us so profoundly? Why, when we look at the animations and patterns do we see things in them that really aren’t there?
You can find the client program at http://www.electricsheep.org/

It costs nothing to download or use and is worth spending a few hours staring in hypnotic wonder at the screen. Though this program answers none of our continuing questions about dreaming, it does inspire us to continue in the search.

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From → Technology

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