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Department of Computer Science and Technology


I made the banner image for this blog to think about AI in Africa.

The dramatically coloured sand dunes of the Namib desert are an iconic reference to the beauty of the African continent. The red colour also reminds me of the otjize paste used by Himba women - in Nnedi Okorafor’s science fiction novella Binti, otjize paste is essential to the hero's identity as a brilliant African technologist.

The cut-away area reveals a transformed version of the cropped image, which I created using the Prisma app originally developed for iOS. Prisma applies style transfer filters to photographs, using an open source implementation of Deep Neural Networks based on the approach invented by Gatys and colleagues[1]

Photo of dunes in the Namib desert, after processing with Prisma "Broadway" mode

The fantasy of a technological/industrial hidden layer underneath naturalistic scenes is a long-standing trope in science fiction, from the underground world of the Morlocks in H.G. Wells The Time Machine to the red pill infrastructure of The Matrix. Seeing digital abstractions under the beautiful sand of the desert is like a dystopian reversal of the protest slogan that 'there is a beach under the pavement'.

The graphical metaphor of an unmasked hole in one image that reveals a new layer beneath refers to my own previous sabbatical project, resulting in the Palimpsest language for processing images as interpretive layers. Palimpsest does not yet use deep learning algorithms for style transfer, but similar effects could be achieved using its filters. The banner image here was composed manually using the open source package Gimp.

You may see a face in the “AI” cut-out, but this is an accident of the processed dune shadows. I only noticed it only after creating the image, which demonstrates a common illusion. Seeing faces in a random image is the Man in the Moon effect - the human visual system sees faces everywhere, giving the illusion of intelligence in otherwise random natural phenomena. The language and cognition centres of the brain similarly perceive evidence of intelligence in many phenomena, including unpredictable behaviour in AI systems. So are the results of Deep Style Transfer in Prisma implementation really “intelligent” or just an illusion of human agency?

The original photograph of the Namib desert was sourced from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0), credited to Dr Rüdiger Wenzel “Dünen (Namib).jpg”, and cropped to fit the banner format.

[1] Gatys, L. A., Ecker, A. S., Bethge, M., & Sep, C. V. A neural algorithm of artistic style. arXiv 2015. arXiv preprint arXiv:1508.06576.