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PCs dream of electric sheep

Screensaver project, at Boston graphics conference, taps users' spare processing power for art.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read
Scott Draves is tapping the spare processing power in PCs for the sake of art.

Draves is the artist and computer programmer behind the 7-year-old "Electric Sheep" project, a free, downloadable application that combines art, interactivity and distributed computing. It's a bit like the SETI@Home project, which harnesses PCs around the Internet to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

But with Electric Sheep--the name, of course, is an homage to Philip K. Dick and his novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"--the extra processing power of all the networked PCs is being used to do the heavy computing needed to render the eye-popping screensavers that appear on the participating PCs' screens. A high-definition, big-screen version of the project, "Dreams in High Fidelity," will be shown in the art gallery at Siggraph, a computer graphics and interactive techniques conference that starts Sunday in Boston. Click to view images

In addition to booths hawking the wares of software and hardware vendors, Siggraph will have a computer animation festival; a keynote by a Disney executive designer; courses on things like fluid simulation and computational photography; and panels on digital rights, ethics in image manipulation, and content and responsibility in video game development.

Draves, a San Francisco-based artist and computer scientist, will also give a talk on "The Art of Simulation, Evolution and Distributed Systems," at Siggraph.

"With Electric Sheep, a human design team collaborates with the artificial intelligence to bring artificial organisms to life" said Draves, who holds a PhD in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon University. "The designs are guided by the people who are watching them."

The program has become so popular that Draves this week released a new version with built-in BitTorrent, a file-sharing protocol that lets computers download the images even faster.

The Electric Sheep open-source screensaver displays the same psychedelic images on all of the 30,000 computers that have been networked together. When the computers "sleep," a screensaver comes on and the computers communicate with one another over the Internet to share the work of rendering the graphics.

The designs, which Draves has dubbed "sheep," are constantly evolving, with a new one "born" every five to 10 minutes. They transform into new, nonrepeating abstract designs based on user reaction. People can use their up and down arrows to signify which designs they like or don't like. The system factors in the collective preferences when forming new designs.

The most popular sheep reproduce to create related designs using a "genetic" algorithm that allows for mutations and so-called crossovers, which refers to the biological process of combining genes from two different sheep to create a new one. People can also download Draves' open-source software and design their own sheep and submit them to the network "gene pool."

Draves archives the best of the flock, and even keeps track of their geneology, recording the sheep, the sheep's two parents and all the sheep's offspring.

The more popular sheep live longer, though Draves has programmed in a shelf life of one week. "The ugly ones are killed off first," he said. "You've got to make room for the younger generation."

Watching the images can be mesmerizing. The colors softly shift from subtle to deep, exploding into vivid sunbursts and Milky Ways. Swirls spiral into smoke and morph into other shapes. Repeating geometric patterns fold in on themselves, channeling M.C. Escher and classical Celtic designs.

"The process is a self-perpetuating, positive feedback loop," said Draves. "If enough people look at it, it becomes more and more beautiful."