Microsoft Uses Machine Learning To Construct The Perfect Sky

It’s the most archetypal sky you could imagine–as seen by an artist, coder, 7 billion people, and one smart algorithm.

On any given night, 7 billion people might look into the sky and see things from a slightly different perspective. Or as artist Maja Petrić puts it, “we have one sky, but the experiences are infinite.”


That’s why, working with machine learning researcher Nebojša Jojić in Microsoft Research’s Studio99, Petrić created The Skies Epitomized. It’s one world map of the night sky that encapsulates the way we all see it–subjectively from around the globe–through software.

Technically, the map doesn’t have 7 billion views from across the globe. Instead, it features eight different climate regions, sort of like a weather map might. So it has the polar sky, the arid sky, and the tropical monsoon sky, interspersed across the continents.

These individual skies are built from an aggregate of thought. Jojić created a machine learning algorithm that could comb the images people had already uploaded and named. To build the polar sky, for instance, he set the software to look at results for searches including “sky, skyscape, north+pole+sky, south+pole+sky.” The software would look at all of these images and suck in bits and pieces of them, remixing the results to become a “sky epitomized”–the epitome of what everyone saw when they considered a polar sky.

The results are certainly beautiful, though nothing approaching photoreal. The polar sky becomes something like the the northern lights passed through a 1970s acid rock filter. It’s psychedelic and nonsensical, sure, but it seems to exist on a whole other plane of existence. This abstract effect is, perhaps, more poignant when it applies to a specific time and place: The project also features the 9/11 sky and the Baghdad sky, the former of which is a tearful gray and blue haze, the latter a series of chaotic explosions. Even in the blurry pixels presented here, they’re each appropriately haunting in a way that a razor sharp photo would never be.

Paired with each individual sky, Petrić has chosen a person from the region looking on to create the effect as if you, the viewer, are seeing the sky through their eyes. Of course, you aren’t. If the project demonstrates anything through these murky skies, it’s that none of us can possibly contain an all-encompassing perspective. And maybe when we do manage to combine these perspectives into one archetypal image, it is often far less clear than what we started with.

All Images: via studio99/Microsoft Research

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.