Meet me at the Ganimal Crossing

ziv epstein

Written by Zivvy Epstein, with the help of his ganimal friends Océane Boulais, Micah Epstein, Josh Hirschfeld Kroen, and Matt Groh 

Today we answer the age-old question: what happens when you put the face of a golden retriever on the body of a goldfish? Stuck at home during quarantine, I am scared to pet the cute dogs I see out my window, and my local aquarium is closed under further notice. Luckily for us, there are new animals in our computers. Artificial intelligence can create millions of artificial species no one has ever seen. These AI-generated animals, which I call "ganimals," are created by a generative adversarial network (or GAN) which blends existing animals, and they need someone to take care of them. 

First, let’s meet the Golden Foofa (far left). Hiding amongst the digital kelp, the Golden Foofa is among the most shy, gentle, and effervescent ganimals. If you are lucky enough to see her during the full moon, when she roams the ocean floor in search of bytes, you will know why sailors and deep learning experts alike call the Golden Foofa the champagne of the sea. Descending from canine and pescatorial origins, the Golden Foofa carries the loyalty of her Golden Retriever mother and the short attention span of her Goldfish father.

I discovered the Golden Foofa experimenting with a GAN late one night. I also came across the enigmatic Charove (middle). Charove has such an overactive imagination that it synthesizes entire worlds within its own mind, with their own planets, cities, and logics. A profoundly social creature, Charove can be found engaging in murmations with other ganimals when not daydreaming about the cosmos.

The last ganimal I found, the Baby Oagen (right), is a bit creepy and doesn't seem to really care about human connection. 

I stumbled across these three ganimals, and the only thing weirder was the fourth. And the fifth. Who knew the depths of a GAN was teeming with new creatures! But I couldn’t possibly discover them all on my own. Together with my equally inspired collaborators, we created a digital petting zoo called Meet the Ganimals. It is a collaborative conservatory to “discover” new species, breed your own, and feed the ones you love. By participating, you can become an explorer of artificial worlds from the enforced comfort of your living room. Which ganimals will you discover? Which will you add to the conservatory? Which is the cutest? The scariest? The most memorable?

But wait—there’s more! In a sense, the digital landscape these ganimals inhabit is similar to our own, where attention is short, and engagement is necessary to survive. The ganimals you encounter are generated by an algorithm that balances two factors. First, the algorithm explores undiscovered regions of the Ganimal Kingdom (the vast combinatorial space of all possible ganimals). Second, the algorithm surfaces already discovered ganimals that people love. For example, if you’re lucky, you might see the charismatic Golden Foofa drift through. By interacting with the ganimals, and providing feedback on which ones you like, you have a direct hand in determining which ones are remembered, and which are forgotten. Conservationists have a term for these kinds of preferential attachments to specific animals: charismatic megafauna. Charismatic megafauna are animals that people feel a natural affinity towards, and thus help drive environmental goals, such as the Bengal Tiger, the Humpback Whale, and the Giant Panda. So the question remains: Will a couple “charismatic megafauna,” like the Golden Foofa, thrive? Or, will we grow to appreciate the unconventional and unexpected?

Right now, most of us are stuck in physical isolation, and our lives are becoming increasingly digital. It is a powerful time to reflect on how our psychology impacts both digital and natural ecosystems. Much as the conservation of nature depends on our attention to the interdependence and diversity of life, the conservation of our digital ecosystems requires us to be similarly mindful of how our preferences shape them. By sticking the face of a golden retriever on the body of a goldfish, and calling it “cute,” we realize something that is half-fish, half-dog, and entirely human.

Acknowledgements. Thank you to Blakeley H. Payne, Kalli Reztepi, Anna Chung, and Bill Powers for insightful comments, thoughts, and feedback.

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