On Cat Pictures

Cats are still-wild animals that depend on us for food and shelter. And it is precisely their innate wildness, bundled into small packages of cuteness residing in our homes, that make cat pictures the social phenomenon it is.

Cat pictures dominate the online world. In 2012, a team from Google tested a neural network for machine learning — a key step to developing artificial intelligence — by feeding millions of digital stills from random YouTube videos into the program. The idea was to see what the program could identify on its own, like the human brain that it is meant to simulate. The program taught itself to recognize, well, cats. Neural networks “learn” through repetition; there are so many cat pictures on the internet that the program, in the words of one of the programmers, “basically invented the concept of a cat.” This technological leap forward has since been further refined to differentiate breeds of cats. And the leader of the Google team, Stanford University professor Andrew Ng, has a Coursera class in which you get to practice your new skills on — you guessed it — cat pictures.

Or, as another friend once said, “Which is more popular on the internet, cats or porn?”

Digital cameras and internet technology have made it much easier to take and disseminate cat pictures. With smartphones, it takes only a few clicks for us cat owners/parents/slaves to make an image or film of our cats in a particularly adorable or hilarious situation and post it on social media. But the human desire to capture the likeness of cats is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Ancient Egyptians famously venerated cats, though their cat images are more about their spiritual beliefs: they gave their cats the same burial rites as humans so that the cats could also pass on to the next world. They painted and carved the likenesses of cats on their papyri and tombstones. The ancient Nazca Lines in Peru, geoglyphs carved into the desert floor, include the image of a cat, though scientists have yet to understand what it means.

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