Can facial recognition assist art historians?

Art research effort aided by face recognition (BBC)

The software under development by Prof Rudolph, engineer Amit Roy-Chowdhury and art historian Jeanette Kohl will try to put a name to these forgotten likenesses by grabbing data about defining elements of faces from portraits and comparing them to known depictions.

Early work on the project established that key parameters for facial recognition in portraiture include the position of the corners of the eyes and mouth, the width between the eyes, and the width of the mouth. Mapping these characteristics using a 27-point scheme captures sufficient information to make identifications, said the researchers.

The application of facial recognition technologies to the challenges of art history is a fascinating topic. We once had a call from a collector who believed he had discovered a third existing photograph of Henry David Thoreau and wanted our help with the verification.

The BBC article, however, discusses the application of facial recognition technology to artifacts created before the invention of photography, which presents a whole different set of challenges.

Art historians interested in applying software to facial analysis might be wise to enroll death masks (also mentioned in the article, or life masks) as database images since they are as nearly as possible an actual recording of a person’s face. Those could then be compared to painted images purportedly of the same person. Using this technique, art historians would quickly get an idea of how “accurate” portraitists (in general, or individually) were at painting images to the mathematical specificity that underlies facial recognition algorithms.

They would probably learn a lot from this basic exercise. How accurate did portraits tend to be? Were they supposed to be scientifically accurate? Or, were they more like the airbrushed and Photoshopped images that grace the covers of magazines today? Were certain portraitists consistently more accurate than others. Once these questions are well understood, analysis of painted or carved images for identification purposes might come within reach even where no contemporary physical impression of the face exists.

Perspecitves on ID in earlier- vs. later-developing countries

The Government and the UK’s National Technical Authority on Information Assurance (CESG) have published new guidance on ‘identity proofing’ and verification. (Pinsent Masons)

“Within the UK there is no official or statutory attribute or set of attributes that are used to uniquely identify individuals across Government,” the joint Cabinet Office and CESG guidance document said. “Neither is there a single official or statutory issued document whose primary purpose is that of identifying an individual. Without such attributes or documentation it is difficult for any person to be absolutely certain of the identity of another.”

“This guide is designed to demonstrate how a combination of the breadth of evidence provided, the strength of the evidence itself, the validation and verification processes conducted and a history of activity can provide various levels of assurance around the legitimacy of an identity,” it said.

The whole piece is interesting.

The first quoted sentence above really jumps out, though.

The early industrializers/bureaucratizers typically developed their ID schemes in an ad hoc fashion. The church kept its records for its purposes. The military kept its records for its purposes. Schools, for theirs. Service providers, etc. The system generally works. In the end, error rates and whether or not the costs of the ID errors exceed what it would cost to fix them rule the day. Political and financial considerations factor in.

It is precisely this patchwork ID environment that later-developing countries are choosing to leap-frog with more centralized (United Arab Emirates) or ecosystem (India) approaches involving biometrics. Outside observers from the earlier developing countries are often surprised that their political perspective on government-backed ID isn’t universally shared while observers in later-developing countries may be equally surprised that the most developed countries in the world have such patchwork ID systems.

Interview with James Wayman

Very good interview at Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) with James Wayman on face recognition and other biometrics. Mr. Wayman is the former director of the National Biometric Test Center at San Jose State University and is now an administrator in its Office of Graduate Studies and Research.

Will Face Recognition Ever Capture Criminals? (

Okay, so, let’s start historically with the technology. It was developed in the early 1960s by a fellow named Woodrow W. Bledsoe, who I believe was an IEEE member. He later retired at the University of Texas at Austin. And what he was doing was marking facial images by hand—the centers of the eyes, the corners of the eyes, the corners of the lips, and the like. And then he projected these marks onto a sphere and he rotated the sphere, trying to get marks from two different images to line up, at which point he could say, aha, these are from the same person.

Well, all of this hand marking didn’t work so well, and in the late 1980s, Sirovich and Kirby came out with this very simplistic idea that is so simple it sounds like it’ll never possibly work, but it did.”

For those who prefer listening to reading, there’s also a podcast…

The past and future of the American passport

The existence of the book, The Passport in America:The History of a Document (Amazon) somehow escaped my attention.

Luckily, the Boston Globe ran a short Q&A with the book’s author, Craig Robertson, today. Click on over to see his answers to the questions below.

When were Americans first required to carry passports for foreign travel?

What was the purpose of passports issued by the State Department before World War I?

Nineteenth-century passports actually featured written descriptions of their holders, correct?

So what was the reaction among the American public when photographs were introduced to passports?

In the days before birth certificates became commonplace, how did the government verify an applicant’s identity?

What future changes to the passport do you foresee?

In your research, you probably looked at hundreds of passports. Did you find a single good passport photo?