These Artists Are Mapping the Earth ... With Facial Recognition Software

The faces of the planet, as seen from space
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Angry man with jet-black hair and protruding chin (Onformative)

Have you ever looked up into the sky and seen a cloud that vaguely resembles your mom? Or gazed at the twisted trunk of a tree, only to see an old man staring back at you? Then you have experienced pareidolia, the human mind's tendency to read significance into random stimuli. You have learned what children and poets have long held true: that anything -- any place -- can be a canvas for a human face.

Computers are learning the same lesson. Only they're doing so with the help of some ingenious humans. The generative design studio Onformative -- founded by the artists/designers Cedric Kiefer and Julia Laub -- put the logic of pareidolia to technological use, combining facial recognition software with Google Earth images to find the faces of the planet as they might be seen from space. The resulting project, "Google Faces," is a search agent, the designers say, "that hovers the world to spot all the faces that are hidden on earth."

Google Faces has found, for example, this: 

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Squinty eyes, button nose, pointy palate (Onformative)

And this:

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Teddy Roosevelt, with a blocklike nose, doing a duckface (Onformative)

And this:

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The software in action (Onformative)

As Onformative explains of the project:

The way we perceive our environment is a complex procedure. By the help of our vision we are able to recognize friends within a huge crowd, approximate the speed of an oncoming car or simply admire a painting. One of human's most characteristic features is our desire to detect patterns. We use this ability to penetrate into the detailed secrets of nature. However we also tend to use this ability to enrich our imagination. Hence we recognize meaningful shapes in clouds or detect a great bear upon astrological observations.

Despite all this, sometimes it's hard (for this human, at any rate) to see the faces the software seems to be seeing. (In the image directly above, for example, all I get is Earth.) But when the project works, it really works. It offers a whole new way to know the faces that lurk on the surface of the planet -- faces of inhuman humanity, waiting to be discovered.

Hat tip Animal New York via Ashley Fetters

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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