Yesterday, when I was photographing that sketch of the security guard, my camera automatically switched over into portrait mode. Its face-detection software responded to the sketch as if it were a real face, even though it was looking at pencil scratches on paper, and the “face” was in profile.
It sent a chill down my spine because I sensed the emergence of a mind.
My camera switches over to portrait-mode whenever it sees a painting or a drawing with a face in it. It stays in AUTO mode otherwise.
According to Popular Mechanics: “a chip inside the camera constantly scans the image in its viewfinder for two eyes, a nose, ears and a chin, making out up to 10 faces at a time before you've hit the shutter.”
I decided to test my camera—it’s a Canon Powershot SX120—to see what it decides to regard as a face.
According to my camera, this is a face.
But this is not a face, even though, as Scott McCloud points out, it seems to fit the ideal human cognitive model.
This portrait of Soutine by Modigliani is a face.
And Jawlensky’s Woman with a Forelock is a face.
Jawlensky’s Medusa is also a face, but my camera wasn’t sure. It switched back and forth from AUTO to PORTRAIT a few times.
There are no faces in Oskar Kokoshka’s Loving Couple with a Cat.
And there’s no face here, either.
Popular Mechanics hints at what’s coming: “Sometime soon, face detection may even give way to facial identification, discerning one subject from another. For instance, the camera could retain an image tagged 'Mom' in its memory. Later, the camera would automatically recognize each subsequent picture of your mother and add the 'Mom' tag to it."
Facial identification or recognition is a fast-growing technology that uses 3-D scans or interpolates various 2-D scans to assemble a knowledge of basic structure. Wikipedia says that some of the new algorithms are “able to outperform human participants in recognizing faces and can uniquely identify identical twins.”
You can extend these forecasts to imagine future web-enabled smart cameras that can recognize makes of cars, Zagat ratings of pizza parlors, and movie preferences of strangers in your local Starbucks.
The lesson that I took away from this little experiment has nothing to do with taste in art. My thought was this: as we endow machines with more and more intelligence, we will have to get used to the idea that they will not respond to basic things as we do. Their talents and their lapses will be unlike ours.
Their thinking style— their fundamental orientation to the universe—will be different. They will see the world in a way that will seem at once chummily familiar and creepily alien.
Read more about face-detecting cameras at Popular Mechanics. Wikipedia on Face Detection and Facial Recognition tech.
Scott McCloud and the ideal cartoon face on Cognition and Culture.
Added later: Scott's blog reflects further on intelligent machines here.