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Computers are starting to identify objects with near-human levels of accuracy, enabling them to do everything from creating automatic picture captions to driving cars. But now a collection of bizarre optical illusions for these artificial-intelligence systems (AIs) has revealed that machines don’t see the same way we do, which could leave them vulnerable to exploitation.

Image-recognition algorithms learn to recognise objects by training on a large number of images and identifying patterns that mark out a cat from a coffee cup, for example.

Jeff Clune of the University of Wyoming in Laramie and his colleagues wanted to know if they could hook up a particular type of image-recognition algorithm called a deep neural network (DNN) to a second algorithm designed to evolve different pictures.

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Such genetic algorithms, working in conjunction with human judgement, have previously created images of apples and faces, so Clune wondered if replacing the human with a DNN, to work alongside the genetic algorithm, would work as well, resulting in a computer that could generate creative pictures by itself.

“We were expecting that we would get the same thing, a lot of very high-quality recognisable images,” Clune says. “Instead we got these rather bizarre images: a cheetah that looks nothing like a cheetah.”

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It turned out that the genetic algorithm produced images of seemingly random static that AlexNet declared to be pictures of a variety of animals with more than 99 per cent certainty (see picture). Other images, generated in a different way, look like vaguely evocative abstract art to humans, but fool AlexNet into seeing a baseball, electric guitar or other household object.

The algorithm’s confusion is due to differences in how it sees the world compared with humans, says Clune. While we identify a cheetah by looking for the whole package – the right body shape, patterning and so on – a DNN is only interested in the parts of an object that most distinguish it from others. “It’s almost like these DNNs are huge fans of cubist art,” says Clune. (1)

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A computer can be fooled by static.
And see a cheetach where we see nothing but dots…

The humans can be impressed by static.
And see a flower where only dots exist…

The difference cannot be expressed in words.
It can only be experienced.
And this is exactly why it is so fundamental…