TLDR; an artist is iterating through every combination of pixels to produce every possible digital photograph so as to explore the concept of infinity.
This is less interesting to me as an exploration of infinity, since there are a provably finite number of unique combinations of pixels for any given resolution and color depth.
Of course, for any reasonably sized image, say 640×480 at 24bpp, the number is exceedingly large. It’s about 2 to the 7 million, in this case, which would take more time than the age of the universe to merely count, given computers that today can typically count to only 2^64 sometime before you die. That’s not really that interesting, because counting images is no way to find anything interesting in there.
What’s more interesting to me is the underlying idea that every image is just a number. If you see an array of colored pixels as the mere bits they are, then it’s more obvious that there is a distinct integer or index matched to each unique image. A paint program, like Photoshop, is not actually helping you “draw” anything, in this sense, but merely changing which of those strings of bits are being displayed at any given time.
Yes, so therefore a paint program is just navigating through a pre-determined space of all possible images of a given size. Painting just one pixel is enough to move a little or a lot in that finite space.
You didn’t make that nice piece of art, you merely steered the computer towards it.
But what’s even more interesting is the idea that all of those images already and provably exist. That’s right, if you know the number, you know the image and vice-versa. Whether anyone’s ever seen the funny picture of George W. Bush lighting his hair on fire isn’t the point — that image definitely exists, and at 640×480 is going to be very clear. Whether it’s a photo of anything real is another story. And since movies are just strings of strings of bits, the same goes for video too.
So, one might ask, what the hell is copyright for digital imagery but a claim of owning a specific number, or set of numbers that represent the same approximate image? This would go for books and music too, btw, but let’s not wander.
I was so fascinated by this concept when I was younger that I wrote an April Fools post for an old computer graphics usenet group back in 1993. Thanks to Google usenet archives, I have recovered the text (yes, I really wrote this and posted it anonymously while I worked at Disney):
October 21, 1993 — [Geneva] Two Swiss scientists announced last week their stunning discovery of a method for generating and storing any conceivable picture using ordinary personal computers. Called The Database of Every Picture Imaginable, or DOEPI, their system is currently seeking patent and copyright protection in virtually every industrialized nation, including the United States.
Other image generation and storage technologies have been introduced in the past to help cope with the incredible demands of Multimedia and Video-Dialtone but, according to co-inventor Dr. Francois La Tete, of the Alpine Institute, a well-respected Swiss mathematical society, DOEPI is the first system which is capable of storing literally every image. “Our proprietary algorithm is the first of it’s kind,” says La Tete, ” It can compress every image into such a compact space that the software can run with less than one megabyte of memory.”
Indeed, the performance of their system is impressive. Independent experts have confirmed that when fed a “bit-index-code” (a string of 1’s and 0’s which tell the database how to find the proper image), the database can produce the correct image in less than two seconds.
According to La Tete, the original developer of the software, the technique uses an extremely simple principle but one which obviously has eluded the rest of the world so far. Like many inventors, he came up with the idea indirectly. “I was trying to automate the process of collecting images from various FTP sites,” he explains shyly, “when I realized that I could simply create the images myself.” From that point on, his personal computer worked day and night to generate the images he desired.
But Alfonso Marzipani, La Tete’s business partner and former Human Genome Project director, immediately realized the practical side of the invention. He understood that a technique that could generate any picture could be used to create pictures never before seen. “We used [La Tete’s] stuff to make a movie about some scary dinosours,” explains Marzipani. “Then we saw the same exact thing in a movie I can’t name for legal reasons. I said, ‘Frankie,’ we’re on to something big.”
One year later, Marzipani claims the database is complete. The energetic team has, in addition to filing for software patents, filed for blanket copyrights on all of the images stored in the database. “If we make the images first, we should own them, right?” claims Marzipani.
Copyright Offices seem to agree. Nearly twenty countries have already granted blanket copyrights to Marzipani’s operating company, La Monde, SpA. Other countries, like the United States are more cautious. According to US Copyright Chairperson Ingrid Dingot, such a broad copyright must be seriously considered. “A blanket copyright might mean that they might own any image anyone else tries to create,” says Dingot. “That might have an impact on the US economy.”
To conclusively determine if DOEPI actually does contain every image, the USCO has enlisted James Farrel, an independent data retrieval expert. Farrel has begun the laborious process of printing copies of all of the images in the database, one by one. It is estimated that a full dump of the database will require several trillion years and more paper than exists on the planet.
In the mean time, he has used a more direct approach. Seven major entertainment companies have come together to donate their accumulated libraries of images to Farrell’s effort in the hopes of proving the DOEPI database incomplete. “If we can find even one image they don’t have,” says Arturo Nakagawa, CEO of Sony America, “then their claim is false.”
So far, Farrel has searched for nearly ten thousand images with complete success. “It’s incredible,” says Farrel. “After they compute the bit-index from the control image, it takes only a second or two to find the matching image in the database. Every damn time.”
But according to La Tete, the software isn’t perfect. He admits that the size of the bit-index-code, sometimes in excess of one megabyte, or eight million bits, is overly cumbersome and hints that the next generation of the software will reduce this requirement by a hundred times or more. “At that point,” says La Tete, “our software will be used by nearly every person on the planet.”
But it appears as if La Tete and Marzipani may have their way before the improved software is ever released. “We may have to grant the copyrights,” admits Dingot candidly. “Even the one for sequencing a series of still images as a motion picture.” Indeed, the future of ownership of visual imagery seems bleak.
But the battle isn’t over. Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, has countered threat with threat. “If their database contains every image, then it contains Disney property,” says Eisner, “Those two owe the Disney Company a large amount of money.” This battle may go over to Disney, with a record of success at this kind of clear-cut property claim. But only time will tell who will win the war.
[AP] -end included article. Reprinted without permission.
I had attributed this to some fake users, but now you know. 🙂