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The Photo Album of Babel
February 6, 2013 12:46 PM   Subscribe

"Using custom-written software (and a very long period of time), every possible photograph is generated, one at a time and in numerical order."
posted by BlackLeotardFront (56 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't get it.

Is it randomly creating images, akin to an infinite number of monkeys?
posted by sparklemotion at 12:52 PM on February 6, 2013


Interestingly, roughly 64% of the images are of 20-year-olds making duck faces.
posted by facetious at 12:53 PM on February 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


Just because you CAN put an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters doesn't really mean you SHOULD....
posted by Captain_Science at 12:54 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Photograph? No. Image? Yes.
posted by boo_radley at 12:54 PM on February 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


PROOF
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:54 PM on February 6, 2013


Already done in 1996 with 1-bit colors.
posted by scose at 12:55 PM on February 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is one of those concepts that gives me the shivers...because you know theoretically it is possible, even if impractical.
posted by thorny at 12:56 PM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's not random. It's very structured. Start with all pixels black. Change the first pixel (0,0 in the upper left corner) to a very dark grey. Now make that a little less dark. Continue in that manner until that pixel has cycled through every possible color the display can display for a single pixel. When you've done that, change the next pixel (immediately to its right) to be a very dark grey and cycle through all the colors in the first pixel again. When you've gone all the way around bump the next pixel again and cycle. Continue in this manner until all combinations of all colors for all pixels have been generated.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:56 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's an interesting idea, but I'm kind of annoyed at the lack of details. What bit-depth? RGB or grayscale? What resolution?

I was similarly annoyed by his 'music collection sorted numerically' project. I want to know how he's implementing these OCD type projects.
posted by TwoWordReview at 12:58 PM on February 6, 2013


It's fun to think about: in these images are pictures of Jesus, dinosaurs, Jesus on dinosaurs, every possible sex tape frame by frame, the beginning and end of the Universe, etc. But ultimately it just shows the incomprehensibility of large numbers.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:58 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


"...overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."
posted by bondcliff at 12:59 PM on February 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


Looks like maybe 12x16 pixels and 3 colors (black, white, and grey). He's got 130 monitors and it looks like he's displaying, I dunno, 8? pictures per second per monitor, so 1,040 pictures per second total. So a mere 10^88 seconds, give or take, to run through them all.

Is it randomly creating images, akin to an infinite number of monkeys?

As jeffamaphone explained, it's structured. It's just like counting, except the digits are turned into colored pixels. In this case, imagine counting from one to (approximately) 10000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000.
posted by jedicus at 12:59 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I knew a guy once who objected to electronic music on a similar basis. "If it's in electronic format it's technically doable to generate all possible arrangements automatically. Why bother?"

He's wrong, of course, but I like the idea of "using up" all possible states a piece of technology can produce. It's somewhere between The Nine Billion Names of God and exploring random seeds in minecraft.
posted by postcommunism at 12:59 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's an interesting idea

Really?
posted by Theta States at 1:01 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've started this running on my computer. I've also starting printing the cease and desist letters to everybody on earth. Don't even think about taking that picture, it's mine (in two billion years' time)!
posted by Jehan at 1:02 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If it's in electronic format it's technically doable to generate all possible arrangements automatically. Why bother?"

Isn't this true of non-electronic music, too?
posted by goethean at 1:03 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Imagine if you did this with words, but after you'd created all possible words, the world ended because of God or something.
That'd make an awesome science fiction story.
posted by zoo at 1:04 PM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, this is like when I was 13 and realized I could write a program on my Atari 800 that could write all possible Atari 800 programs. Of course, execution time would be a problem, as well as the fact that most wouldn't actually run or do anything.
posted by fings at 1:05 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


So a mere 10^88 seconds, give or take, to run through them all.

How fast would you have to display them in order to go through them all in 10 years?
posted by goethean at 1:06 PM on February 6, 2013


I like this idea, but it would be interesting to try it with a "finite" set of items. Like try to generate, within the biological rules that govern us, all possible human faces.
posted by maxwelton at 1:06 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Continue in this manner until all combinations of all colors for all pixels have been generated.

That seems like cheating though, considering that the project is supposed to be cycling through every possible photo taken by a digital camera. Most digital cameras store the raw sensor data, which represents more information than can be captured in 24-bit bitmap pixels, and converts it to JPEG, which contains less information for any given photo than 24-bit bitmap pixels. Depending on what you define as a photo, you would really need to cycle through every combination of sensor value (which is not directly representable as a single image) or every possible JPEG photo that could be produced by those sensor values.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:07 PM on February 6, 2013


Isn't this true of non-electronic music, too?

I think it was one of those opinions that is held in part for the novelty of presenting it.
posted by postcommunism at 1:08 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Goddamnit, I had this idea YEARS AGO but never got around to it.
posted by pmv at 1:09 PM on February 6, 2013


What bit-depth? RGB or grayscale? What resolution?

Yes I too am annoyed. From the video it looks very low resolution and maybe 8 shades of grey.

But the text says he's attempting to "use up" a "digital camera". So what would that look like (even though it's clearly not what's happening). So, let's say it's 24 bit color. That's 8 bits each for red, green and blue. Each pixel will have 2^24 possible values or 16777216 colors. If it's a 0.1MP digital camera then that will be 16.7M^100000 which is a number that is over 72,000 digits long so I won't paste it here but you can see it here. If you do 60 per second the number of millennia that it will take to complete is still a number with more than 72,000 digits. So... not going to happen.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:10 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


For each picture, will they also count, without any fuss, the stars going out one by one?
posted by bonehead at 1:10 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


doh! Sorry bondcliff.
posted by bonehead at 1:10 PM on February 6, 2013


You could do a lot with a 32k computer. Primitive versions of almost every program we used today already existed back then.

(32*1024*8)^262144 = an insanely large number

That makes for a very big, but finite, set of possible programs. But most of those programs are going to crash within a few seconds, or spiral into infinite loops. We can weed them out before a human ever needs to look at them.

The much smaller set of survivors can be mined for entirely new classes of software.
posted by Leon at 1:13 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm glad that photography means something completely different to me than it does to this person.
posted by gyusan at 1:13 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The over/under on mentions of The Nine Billion Names of God in this thread is 35.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:14 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, can someone forward me the photo of my junk?
posted by Mister_A at 1:14 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Arthur? Arthur! This is your brother, Raymond! Yeah! Listen, you have to hear this story idea!"
posted by boo_radley at 1:18 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a programmer I find this really... not interesting at all. You're basically enumerating all possible configurations of a JPEG of a particular dimension and color depth/palette in a fairly straightforward fashion. This is something you can do with any machine format for anything (not just photos), because (duh) machine formats are just a bunch of 1's and 0's, which means they're each just a really large number in binary notation. I think it's kind of funny that this is somehow an Art Thing, when really it's just numbers.
posted by axiom at 1:19 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


See also: Jorge Luis Borges, John F. Simon, Jr. (scose's link above), Sol LeWitt, Gerald Ferguson, bpNichol, John Houck.
posted by oulipian at 1:22 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The fraction of all possible pictures that could be generated before our Sun melts the installation is insignificant. Not only does the human mind fail spectacularly at handling the very big and the very small, it's also lousy with "eventually".

I'm also disappointed with the promise of "custom written software" that only seems to be counting up from zero in base-3 (black, grey, and white). Couldn't the artist have contacted some nerds to code up a sequence that visits more parts of the space of all pictures more evenly. It's like a performance artist promising they will eventually visit all parts of the Grand Canyon and you never see them move away from shuffling between the first few display cases in the visitors center.

/grump grump grump
posted by benito.strauss at 1:28 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it a great idea, just image the implications. Generate all possible photos. Use facial recognition to find faces. You now have pictures of every possible person. Not only that, every possible car, house, piece of furniture. No need to waste time designing anything. Just pick the one you like. You also have the front pages of all the newspapers in the future. Want to know whats going to happen next year? just read all the pictures with the correct date, one of them has to be correct.

This artist is clearly a genius.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:37 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Imagine if you did this with words, but after you'd created all possible words, the world ended because of God or something.
That'd make an awesome science fiction story.


Zoo, Borges beat you to it (reference is in the title), and oulipian put a link. "The Library of Babel" is a fantastic story, and explores the idea you're talking about pretty well.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:05 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


That makes for a very big, but finite, set of possible programs. But most of those programs are going to crash within a few seconds, or spiral into infinite loops. We can weed them out before a human ever needs to look at them.

You're going to use a computer program to determine whether another computer program will terminate or not?

Good luck with that.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:34 PM on February 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think Zoo was just being subtle.

(Umberto Eco riffs on the idea in Foucault's Pendulum, too)

mr_roboto: you can't do it in the general case, but you can find many classes of halting state. All the ones that halt in less than 1000 operations, for example.
posted by Leon at 2:35 PM on February 6, 2013


It's an interesting idea

Really?


Philisophically, yes I think so. Or perhaps I should say interesting concept but boring execution (as it's been pointed out, he's basically just counting up to a very big number). It does touch on the idea of the finitude of the digital domain. He's not going to display every possible photograph, but rather it's (if runtime weren't an issue) every possible digital image given this specific set of constraints (resolution etc), hence my annoyance at not knowing what those constraints are supposed to be.

So on one hand you have a finite set of images, but in practical terms it's pointless as no-one will ever be around to pick out the interesting ones, most of which won't be created before the heat death of the universe anyway. So you now have even more restrictions on what was already a finite subset of an infinite set of possibilities.

Then there's the idea of what is an interesting image? How do we attach meaning to a particular arrangement of random pixels. What makes us perceive this particular arrangement as looking like ourselves without a haircut or whatever.

So I think there's a whole lot that could be explored in an interesting way (finite vs infinite, digital vs analog, big number theories, time, perception, meaning etc etc), but I guess this ain't it.
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:37 PM on February 6, 2013


Use facial recognition to find faces. You now have pictures of every possible person.

Previously, the pareidoloop may interest you. Though I haven't yet recognized myself in the output, so I may need to give it more time.
posted by RobotHero at 2:39 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


How fast would you have to display them in order to go through them all in 10 years?

About 10^83 per second. If you covered the entire surface of the earth with 3" x 4" monitors, each of those monitors would have to show about 2x10^66 pictures per second.

If every atom in the universe were transformed into a monitor, each of these monitors would have to display at a rate of at least a megahertz to complete the entire set of pictures within ten years.

So, yeah, you're pretty much shit out of luck.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:46 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


But he probably only needs to do 10^75 before it comes up with a picture that's interesting to look at in any way at all.
posted by aubilenon at 2:52 PM on February 6, 2013


If every atom in the universe were transformed into a monitor, each of these monitors would have to display at a rate of at least a megahertz to complete the entire set of pictures within ten years.

Ok, but you can reduce the search space. Valid jpegs only, ignore high-frequency components until you're sure you've got an interesting image, feed the output images through some kind of interestingness-recognition algorithm... or at least strip out the images that are obviously noise.
posted by Leon at 2:54 PM on February 6, 2013


But he probably only needs to do 10^75 before it comes up with a picture that's interesting to look at in any way at all.

Oh, I dunno. It's filling from left to right, top to bottom, so about half way through it'll generate a whole bunch of images that look vaguely like a cloudy, grey dawn over a black ocean.
posted by jedicus at 2:59 PM on February 6, 2013


10 if cv = 'max/msp' or 'arduino' or 'jitter' or 'curator' then print "digital prog rock wankery"

20 goto 10
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:09 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ha! I made a comment about this exact idea two years ago (though, in fairness, I was referencing an idea my friend had even longer ago than that.)

So, when this thing finally spits out an image of Jesus partying with Elvis and a T-800 class Terminator, I'm going to get a framed copy.
posted by quin at 4:15 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


What I think would be slightly more interesting (though technically much more difficult) would be to randomize the entire frame at once, and add some constraints to mimic a camera. If you processed a vast number of actual photographs, you could learn some rules about them -- for example, brightness along a row of pixels always follows a gradient in real photographs, you would never get a pattern that goes black-white-black-white (unless through averaging at very low res). So spit out something that follows the same rules as a photograph. Maybe there might be splashes of meaning visible at times.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:28 PM on February 6, 2013


For an 8-bit 640x480 display, there are 256307200 possible images, which is well more than the number of particles in the universe
posted by victory_laser at 1:35 AM on February 7, 2013


The idea that extremely useless labor is interesting...

...gets me though each day.
posted by chavenet at 3:51 AM on February 7, 2013


Just to tie this in with the "What If Numbers" FPP:

13: Number of minutes it would take to view every possible image on an original "Game Boy", if only black and white (no grey) pixels were allowed, and each image lasted 1 frame (1/30th of a second)
posted by ShutterBun at 4:54 AM on February 7, 2013


It isn't just every picture, it is every lie, and every truth, in every language and every font. The key to this problem is filtering out all the noise images and slightly redundant images (Marilyn with the mole, Marilyn without the mole). There must be an equation or method for the filter, but unfortunately, it is contained within the larger dataset of every picture. This secret is also obfuscated by every possible diversion, in every language, in every font and represented in tattoo form on every body part of congress.
posted by pashdown at 7:13 AM on February 7, 2013


256307200 possible images, which is well more than the number of particles in the universe

No it isn't. There are more people on earth than that.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:58 AM on February 7, 2013


Heh, I proposed the very same thing for audio right here on Metafilter over a year ago - and I even made a little demo of it, which isn't fit for running on other people's machine yet.

The issue with audio is that it takes a while to get interesting but I have a new trick that will work around that... :-D

> > For an 8-bit 640x480 display, there are 256307200 possible images, which is well more than the number of particles in the universe

> No it isn't. There are more people on earth than that.

It's an editing error: the total number of images is in fact 256 ** 307200 or about 2 x (10 ** 739811), that is, the number 2 with 739,811 zeroes after it.

That's an incredibly huge number - a Vast number as Dennett calls it - comparing it with the number of elementary particles in the universe is not even in the ballpark of the ballpark.

Imagine that each elementary particle in the universe is another universe - then imagine that each elementary particle in each of these subuniverses is in turn another universe - then keep doing that operation about 9000 times. The number of particles in all those universes put together will then be very very roughly 256 ** 307200...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:56 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


13: Number of minutes it would take to view every possible image on an original "Game Boy", if only black and white (no grey) pixels were allowed, and each image lasted 1 frame (1/30th of a second)

Shutterbun, You forgot a step.

In 13 minutes you view 23400 frames. The gameboy has 160x144 pixels, or 23040.

So in 13 minutes you can view every possible image - that only has one pixel lit! If you allow multiple pixels to be set, then you have 2^23040 possible images, which will take ~2^23016 years . That's a 6928-digit number of years.

If you want to look at all the images at 30 fps in less than 20 minutes, you can do that with a 5x3 pixel screen.
posted by aubilenon at 12:05 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am far too lazy, but I have this idea for a website that would show every visitor two zoomed-up 4x4 black and white images, and then the visitors have to click the one that they think is "better". Would be interesting to see which images would "win" the battle, and with only 65536 possible images it's actually doable.
posted by ymgve at 2:15 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shutterbun, You forgot a step.

Eep! So I did. A big one, in fact.

Yep, we puny humans truly are terrible with big numbers.
posted by ShutterBun at 12:41 AM on February 8, 2013


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