Pareidolia: A Bizarre Bug of the Human Mind Emerges in Computers

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Humans have a tendency to see faces where there are none. So do computers. Are they more like us in their flaws?

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This rocky hill in Ebihens, France, is, well, just that -- a rocky hill in Ebihens, France. But to pretty much any human observer, the assemblage of meaningless angles takes on a familiar appearance, that of a human face in profile. It has a distinct nose, eyes, lips, and chin, capped off with some foliage as hair. From the perspective pictured above, it's impossible not to see a man in a mountain.

This is an example of a phenomenon known as pareidolia, the human tendency to read significance into random or vague stimuli (both visual and auditory). The term comes from the Greek words "para" (παρά), meaning beside or beyond, and "eidolon" (εἴδωλον), meaning form or image. Though animals or plants can "appear" in clouds and human speech can do the same in static noise, the appearance of a face where there is none is perhaps the most common variant of pareidolia (this includes the subgenre of spotting Jesus or Mary in anything from toast to a crab). 


Pareidolia was once thought of as a symptom of psychosis, but is now recognized as a normal, human tendency. Carl Sagan theorized that hyper facial perception stems from an evolutionary need to recognize -- often quickly -- faces. He wrote in his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World, "As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper."

Humans are not alone in their quest to "see" human faces in the sea of visual cues that surrounds them. For decades, scientists have been training computers to do the same. And, like humans, computers display pareidolia. 

Though there is something basely human about the tendency to see faces in the non-human shapes around us, to anthropomorphize odd pieces of hardware or rocks on a hillside, that computers see humans where there are none should not be all too surprising. Facial-recognition software is a tough technological feat, and in the process, computers are bound to come up with false positives. Does this make the computers more like us? Have they taken on our most human cognitive errors? In a superficial sense, yes, computers do make errors that are similar to pareidolia, and this seems very human. But as you look into these computer false-positives a bit more, you find a different story.

In an awesome little creative trick, New York University researcher Greg Borenstein applied open-source software FaceTracker to a Flickr pool of examples called Hello Little Fella. In some instances, FaceTracker found a face just where you or I would:

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Like a human, the computer has found a false-positive. That humans and computers share some instances of pareidolia seems to underscore the human-like nature of those computers, brought about by their human-led training. In that sense, a computers' errors make the computers seem somehow more human. 

But maybe the reason a computer "sees" a face in that key is very simple: Things around us do sometimes actually have the shapes that constitute a face. How can we say this is pareidolia, a strange phenomenon that is supposedly the byproduct of millions of years of evolution, and not just the basic truth that sometimes shapes do look like things they are not? 

A project from Phil McCarthy called Pareidoloop pushes us to think about these questions. By combining random-polygon-generation software and facial-recognition software, McCarthy's program builds its own series of randomly generated faces. Out of layers upon layers of mish-mashed shapes, the software "recognizes" the faces, and the fine tunes them into human likenesses. (McCarthy notes that a lot of them kind of resemble old pictures of Einstein.)

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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