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Electric Sheep – Interview with Scott Draves
Electric Sheep Introduction
Electric Sheep is a distributed computing project for animating and evolving fractal flames, which are in turn distributed to the networked computers, which display them as a screensaver.
First created in 1999 by Scott Draves, the Electric Sheep is a form of artificial life, which is to say it is software that recreates the biological phenomena of evolution and reproduction through mathematics. The system is made up of man and machine, a cyborg mind with 450,000 participant computers and people all over the Internet.
This is a distributed system, with all participating computers working together to form a supercomputer that renders animations, called “sheep”, that everyone sees. The human participants guide the survival of the fittest by voting for their favorite animations in the flock. You can join this project by downloading the Electric Sheep Screensaver.
Each participating computer follows mathematical instructions, Draves’ Flame algorithm, to render its own piece of the larger work, as seen in the table at left. The images are sent back to a central server which compresses them into animations which are sent back out to the viewers. The electricsheep.org website shows the family tree for each sheep, including its parents and offspring, and viewers can track family resemblance. The artist’s Clade series shows a selection of family members in high resolution.
Like Draves’ other software art, the Electric Sheep code is open source, which has allowed it to benefit from code contributions from many enthusiastic programmers. Now Draves serves as head Shepherd on a project with many participants.
The most popular sheep from the current flock can be viewed on the live server, or you can browse the archive.
– via scottdraves.com
Scott Draves Interview with Surrealism Today
Surrealism Today: You have designed this technology, company & ecosystem. Electric Sheep has taken on a life of its own. In a sense, from a systems perspective, you have developed your own game rules rather than just being another player in someone else’s game. What in your thinking has made that possible?
Scott Draves: That’s right, I definitely think of the Sheep as generative world design. My approach is based on languages and metaprogramming, as a way to cross from finite to infinite. It was made possible by exposure to books like Gödel, Escher, Bach and SICP and my friends and colleagues at Brown and CMU SCS who taught me so much about computers and programming.
ST: In previous interviews, you mention Pollock, Gysin, and Burroughs as artists who inspire you. (Related: Cut-up Technique) Art has changed more in the past hundred years than it ever has, and likely will even more in the next hundred years, where would you like to see it go? Rather than create the content of art, will next-gen artists create algorithms that allows for infinite works of art? If that’s the future, you’ve actually been doing it for some time…
SD: I am loving the Cambrian explosion of software art going on. What are my wishes for art? The more the merrier. Algorithms and coding and infinite art are definitely growing and that’s great. But are they growing popularity in the art world? Maybe? I can’t imagine 100 years in the future. I will admit I’ve been doing this forever, I am old, and got an early start, releasing the first open source art in 1992.
Surrealism Today: Many of the Electric Sheep are reminiscent of mandalas in various religious traditions in both East and West as well as psychedelic and visionary art. These movements seem to have goals in common. Do you have an affinity with any spiritual traditions or movements?
Scott Draves: The Sheep have a meditative aspect for me and a spiritual aspect. Yes, there are goals in common, and affinities. Yoga. Zen. Negentropy. Positivism. Science.
ST: You’ve created this ecosystem of beautiful living mandalas that change over time and breed and evolve and die. Each sheep had DNA (code), its form, not to mention the memetic (conceptual) & cultural level. In what senses are the sheep alive?
SD: Thank you. They are alive because they have emergent complexity, at both the breeding, DNA, evolution level and also in the Flame algorithm, where the image emerges from the DNA. The memetic level kicks in with the open source and allowing others to create their own flames and sheep.
Surrealism Today: What non-intuitive things do you do, think or avoid that may have helped contribute to what you have created?
Scott Draves: When I started doing Open Source it was considered unamerican and anti-capitalist, and literally compared to “cancer”. It turns out sharing code has merit. Actually, that was always intuitive to me but most people just didn’t get it. These days it seems open source has taken over in some domains and is thriving.
On the other hand sharing everything may not be advisable. That was not obvious to me. It took me a long time to learn.
ST: William Gibson mentioned in one of his sci-fi books that instead of writing music, musicians wrote algorithms and the code would generate infinite, unique songs that never repeated themselves. Recently the iPhone app “H__r” got me excited… it loops sounds from the environment into a surreal listening experience. What being created today (that I can perhaps link to) has gotten you excited recently?
SD: Joshue Ott has a bunch of amazing av apps: https://intervalstudios.com/. A bit further afield: Alpha Go, https://deepmind.com/research/alphago/. This is an enormous breakthrough that promises so much to come.
Surrealism Today: I’m super excited about this recent high-resolution release of the sheep, and the subscription. What’s next?
Scott Draves: Thank you.
Dots! The real-time audio interactive version, which premiered last year at Creative Tech Week and is going to be in it again this year: http://creativetechweek.nyc/. The mixed reality party was on the 17th of April, 2017.
ST: Where can we find you on the internet?