How Do You Draw ‘Sea Turtle’?

Quick, Draw!


Last week, a suspicion I have long held was confirmed. Americans not only use the word ‘turtle’ to mean ‘tortoise’, all the time, but in fact may not know what a turtle or, more precisely a ‘sea turtle’ is.

Google released an AI experiment called Quick, Draw!, which is teaching a computer to recognise drawings by crowdsourcing as many drawings of certain things – mug, racoon, television, dress – as possible, and having the computer guess what they are.

The game gives you 20 seconds to draw something it chooses, and as you draw it, the computer guesses what it is: “I see square” “I see snorkel” “I see van” “Oh, I know, it’s submarine.”

The poor computer now recognises the following as ‘sea turtle’, when in fact the majority are lettuce-eating, giant Galápagos brethren-having tortoises.




When it was released, others intentionally misled the computer by drawing – what else? – dicks for everything. One poor TV presenter in England played Quickdraw live on air and was told to draw a canon. It didn’t go according to plan.

The computer was also accused of being sexist, because when guessing “a shoe” (a school shoe-like thing with laces), it didn’t recognise high heels, i.e. a woman’s shoe. It did, however quickly recognise as a shoe a witch’s boot, drawn by me. So I’m on the side of the computer here.


Quick, Draw!


I’m not good at drawing, but playing this sweet little game made me feel extremely proud of myself. It also reminded me of some key junior school trends.

That S made of many vertical parallel lines, and flocks of flying Ms. The coolest way to draw a face was to start with a U-shape. That deranged puppy face with the long ears and tongue sticking out and railway-tunnel eyes.

Meanwhile, Matthew Freemantle was drawing his own porn.

What’s interesting about the way that the Quickdraw computer is learning to recognise pictures, is that it looks not just at the final picture, but watches what the first strokes are, or how you draw it, too. It’s the way that Google Translate learned to recognise handwritten letters.

As this video explains, the words ‘look’ and ‘book’, for example, can look similar when written in cursive, but the way that someone draws the first letter can tell a computer which one it is. (The video is worth watching just to hear a Danish man who looks like an owl say, “All doodles of cats have pointy ears, a small nose and whiskers.”)

This might also help Quickdraw tell the difference between an octagon and a hexagon – rather than counting the number of straight lines at angles to one another, it monitors how many times your cursor changes direction or is lifted up and down.

Another way that cataloguing or recognising words has been crowdsourced for years is via reCaptcha, the text you have to enter on some websites, with those two wriggly words as a reference, to prove that you’re human. This process is helping computers to decipher words they can’t recognise when turning books into e-books. A word the computer can’t recognise is placed beside a word that it knows:

‚ÄúThe unknown word is then paired with a second Captcha word whose correct translation is already known. This is the ‘control’.

Several Web users seeking entry to secure sites are then given both words and asked to decipher them separately.

A correct answer for the control word proves that the user is a human and not a machine. Answers for the unknown word are compared with the O.C.R. guesses and the context analysis. If the system is satisfied that the answer is correct, then the game is over.”




Google seems to be promoting Quickdraw purely as an experiment, though it’s pretty good timing considering how much more common drawn pictures and text are becoming in SnapChat, Facebook Messenger and iMessage.

They’re finding a way to read our drawings, and making it fun for us to help them. Our last trace of invisible ink will finally be gone. The note passed back and forth in class, at each turn someone drawing a vertical line, finally making a killer ‘S’ will soon be snatched by the teacher. (Unrelated, but Zadie Smith’s Swing Time just reminded me: remember pushing drawing pins into the soles of your shoes so you could tap your way down the halls?)

I played Quickdraw with a child, and modern children being what they are, she quickly tired of the drawing and recognition, and instead decided to test whether Quickdraw would say ‘Well drawn!” no matter how terribly she did. (It said “Well Drawn!” as long as at least ⅙ drawings were recognised by the computer).

I like the game because it’s always my turn. And look, let’s be honest, this whole article was just so I could show you my drawing of a dragon.


Helen Sullivan's drawing of a dragon.
Helen Sullivan’s drawing of a dragon.


Helen Sullivan is the co-founder and editor of Prufrock, a multilingual print quarterly of African fiction, nonfiction and poetry. To submit, subscribe, find stockists or get in touch, visit Follow her monthly column on Casimir about new technologies and how they interact with, or replace the things they aim to improve upon. 


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