Do Not Draw a Penis is the latest ingenious project from Amsterdam-based interactive design studio, Moniker. Known for creating brilliantly executed but conceptually challenging work, this latest instalment appears to be a fun in-browser drawing tool but it’s so, so much more.
Take a quick visit to donotdrawapenis.com and you’ll find yourself presented with a blank canvas and a pencil (which you control via the mouse). You’re invited to draw anything you like and, as you do, a voiceover reflects on what you’re drawing: “This could be anything… Your effort is appreciated…” and as it figures out what you’re drawing: “What a beautiful binoculars.” If you err on the edge of the inappropriate, the voiceover takes action and erases your drawing.
Moniker first became interested in the relationship between artificial intelligence and drawing tools back in 2015, when Google launched its Quick, Draw! project, fascinated by the “overly simplistic but intriguing comments the voice was making about the line drawings being drawn on screen.” All was well until, in 2018, Google released the dataset for Quick, Draw!. Roel Wouters and Luna Maurer of Moniker tell us: “We became a bit worried about the idea that our sketches and doodles are now mapped, categorised and moderated by a company whose aim is ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’.”
Google’s set, they continue, consists of 345 categories and over 15 million drawings, but no inappropriate categories are included. “As the set quickly became the main source for AI training data it made us think about the moral responsibilities big tech companies have towards our global community. We understand Google likes to create frictionless digital experiences. But does it understand it limits our means of communication as a side effect?” they question. “To us, it’s a bit like an art school with just flowers on the wall.”
Do Not Draw a Penis, therefore, functions as a vessel to collect inappropriate doodles from people who “are not willing to stay within the moral constraints set by our social network providers,” Roel and Luna explain. “And while doing so, they enable us to publish an appendix to the Google Quickdraw data set.” While the dataset is one aspect of the project, Do Not Draw a Penis simultaneously forces users to become “rebels”, finding loopholes in the system as they engage with the disembodied voice. “By doing so, we hope to create awareness that our moral compass is increasingly controlled by the AI engineers of tech giants like Facebook, Google, Baidu, WeChat, etc,” they continue. By its very nature, this project alludes to the soft power of AI and machine learning; it rejects the community guidelines of most social media networks and therefore opens our eyes to the possibility of alternative communications.
For those of you wondering just how Do Not Draw a Penis works, on the technicalities of the project, the duo explains: “Google’s Quick, Draw! is based on its handwriting recognition platform and we assume the recognition is done at Google’s servers. In order to keep server costs low, we use TensorFlow.js to do the recognition on the device and not on our server. At the time we started our project it was hard to use models based on vector images in the browser using TensorFlowJS. We ended up converting the vector drawings to images and using MobileNetV2 to train and classify images. MobileNetV2 is also more suitable for mobile use and turned out to work great for our purposes.”
So far, the project has amassed 10,000 doodles, formatted in the same way as Google’s dataset, available to anyone to download. Oh, and 5,000 of them are available to buy as a tea towel (which we have already added to basket).
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