From earlier in the year at Thinking Digital 2014 in Gateshead.
This was a chance to do some detective work on the massive amount of genetic programming data we’ve amassed over the last few months, figure out ways to visualise it and create large prints of the egg pattern generation process. I selected family trees of eggs where mutations caused new features that made them difficult for people to spot, and thus resulted in large numbers of descendants. Then I printed examples of the eggs at different stages to see how they progressed through the generations.
We also ran the egglab game in the gallery on a touch screen which accidentally coincided with some great coverage in the Guardian and Popular Science, but the game kept running (most of the time) despite this.
The Poly (or Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society) was really the perfect place for this exhibition, with its 175 year history of promoting scientists, engineers and artists and encouraging innovation by getting them together in different ways. Today this seems very modern (and would be given one of our grand titles like ‘cross-displinary’) but it’s quite something to see that in a lot of ways the separation between these areas is currently bigger than it ever has been, and all the more urgent because of this. The Poly has some good claims to fame, being the first place Alfred Nobel demonstrated nitro‐glycerine in 1865! Here are some pages from the 1914 report, a feel for what was going on a century ago amongst other radical world changes:
9,000 players, 20,000 games played and 400,000 tested egg patterns later we have over 30 generations complete on most of our artificial egg populations. The overall average egg difficulty has risen from about 0.4 seconds at the start to 2.5 seconds.
Thank you to everyone who contributed their time to playing the game! We spawned 4 brand new populations last week, and we’ll continue running the game for a while yet.
In the meantime, I’ve started working on ways to visualise the 500Mb of pattern generating code that we’ve evolved so far – here are all the eggs for one of the 20 populations, each row is a generation of 127 eggs starting at the top and ordered in fitness score from left to right:
This tree is perhaps more useful. The ancestor egg at the top is the first generation and you can see how mutations happen and successful variants get selected.
We’ve released our latest citizen science camouflage game Egglab! I’ve been reporting on this for a while here so it’s great to have it released in time for Easter – we’ve had coverage in the Economist, which is helping us recruit egg hunters and 165,000 eggs have been tested so far over the last 3 days. At time of writing we’ve turned over 13 generations starting with random pattern programs and evolving them with small mutations, testing them 5 times with different players and picking the best 50% each time.
Here is an image of some of the first generation of eggs:
And this shows how they’ve developed 13 generations later with the help of many thousands of players:
We can also click on an individual egg and see how it’s evolved over time:
And we see how on average the time taken to find eggs is changing:
Technically this project involves distributed pattern generation on people’s browsers using HTML5 Canvas, making it scalable. Load balancing what is done on the server over three machines and a Facebook enabled subgame – which I’ll use another blog post to explain.
I’m putting the final pieces together for the release of the all new Project Nightjar game (due in the run up to Easter, of course!) and the automatic pattern generation has been a focus right up to this stage. The challenge I like most about citizen science is that along with all the ‘normal’ game design creative restrictions (is it fun? will it work on the browser?) you also have to satisfy the fairly whopping constraints of the science itself, determining which decisions impact on the observations you are making – and being sure that they will be robust to peer review in the context of publication – I never had to worry about that with PlayStation games :)
With this game, similar to the last two, we want to analyse people’s ability to recognise types of pattern in a background image. Crucially, this is a completely different perception process from recognition of a learned pattern (a ‘search image’), so we don’t want to be generating the same exact egg each time from the same description – we don’t want people to ‘learn’ them. This also makes sense in the natural context of course, in that an individual bird’s eggs will not be identical, due to there being many many additional non-deterministic processes happening that create the pattern.
I’ve spent some time testing Project Nightjar EggLab: clicking on algorithmically generated eggs on backgrounds taken from nightjar nest sites and recording the time it takes for each egg. It’s designed for lots of people to play in parallel, but I wanted to test it before coming up with more gameplay mechanic ideas.
The timing is used to rank the eggs, I keep the top 1024 individuals that took longest to find, and generate new ones from them. The idea is that successful traits will increase throughout the population and the average score will increase – from this small test it seems to be the case, a slow but consistent rise over the latest 500 eggs:
Most of the eggs are still really easy to see, but some of them take a few seconds and every now and again there is a good one that can take longer. These are some nest sites from the fiery-necked nightjar, which seems to consistently favour leafy ground – the last one took me a while to spot:
This are the top 50 eggs for the fiery-necked population, it’s quite noisy with false positives due to the fact that if you get distracted when playing the egg will score highly (this is one of the things to fix):
For comparison, here is the top 50 for the Mozambique nightjar:
These birds nest on a bigger variety of sites, including bare earth – here’s a good one of them:
We’ve had tens of thousands of people spotting nightjars and donating a bit of their time to sensory ecology research. The results of this (of course it’s still on-going, along with the new nest spotting game) is a 20Mb database with hundreds of thousands of clicks recorded. One of the things we were interested in was seeing what people were mistaking for the birds – so I had a go at visualising all the clicks over the images (these are all parts of the cropped image – as it really doesn’t compress well):
Then, looking through the results – I saw a strange artefact:
My first thought was that someone had tried cheating with a script, but I can hardly imagine that anyone would go to the bother and it’s only in one image. Perhaps some form of bot or scraping software agent – I thought that browser click automation was done by directly interpreting the web page? Perhaps it’s a fall back for HTML5 canvas elements?
It turns out it’s a single player (playing as a monkey, age 16 to 35 who had played before) – so easy enough to filter away, but in doing that I noticed the click order was not as regular as it looked, and it goes a bit wobbly in the middle:
Someone with very precise mouse skills then? :)
A couple of screenshots from the upcoming Project Nightjar citizen science game – the genetic programming pattern generator is now working in a simple test framework, and even with myself as the only player at the moment, it’s gradually producing eggs that are harder and harder to find against one of the background images from the field site in South Africa. Today I’ve been working on a viewer for the pattern genome itself, which displays all the base images and the operations and intermediate steps as it builds up the final image. Unlike any natural form of genetics, genetic programming is all about growing trees of functions connected together, and here we are interested in combining simple images using HTML5 canvas’s composite operations to make complex patterns.
This will be useful for debugging mutations, where the sub-trees are jumbled up, but as we’re building a citizen science game, we’re also going to be exposing as much as possible about how it’s working – from the game mechanics like this to the underlying camouflage theories we’ll be testing. If you recognise the graph drawing algorithm, I’ve been plundering a long forgotten project: fastbreeder.
The first Project Nightjar game was a big success, with 6 thousand players in the first few days – so we’ll have lots of visual perception data to get through! Today I’ve been doing a bit more work on the egg generator for the next citizen science camouflage game:
I’ve made 24 new, more naturalistic base images than the abstract ones I was testing with before, and implemented the start of the genetic programming system – each block of 4×4 eggs here are children of a single randomly created parent, each child is created with a 1% mutation rate. The programs trees themselves are 6 levels deep, so a maximum of 64 binary composite operations.
All the genetic programming effort will happen in HTML5, thus neatly scaling the processing with the number of players, which is going to be important if this game proves as popular as the last – all the server has to do then is keep a record of the genotypes (the program trees) and their corresponding fitness.
One catch with this approach is the implementation of globalCompositeOperation in HTML5, the core of the image synthesis technique I’m using, is far from perfect across all browsers. Having the same genotype look different to different people would be a disaster, so I’m having to restrict the operations to the ones consistently supported – “source-over”,”source-atop”,”destination-over”,”destination-out”,”lighter” and “xor”.