Physiognomy for the Modern Age

December 6, 2016

Years ago, when I first learned about the Victorian-age pseudosciences of physiognomy and phrenology, I remember thinking how glad I was that society had evolved past such nonsense. It appears I was mistaken; the basic concept was just waiting for technology to evolve before popping back up, we learn from NakedSecurity’s article, “’Faception’ Software Claims It Can Spot Terrorists, Pedophiles, Great Poker Players.”  Based in Isreal, Faception calls its technique “facial personality profiling.” Writer Lisa Vaas reports:

The Israeli startup says it can take one look at you and recognize facial traits undetectable to the human eye: traits that help to identify whether you’ve got the face of an expert poker player, a genius, an academic, a pedophile or a terrorist. The startup sees great potential in machine learning to detect the bad guys, claiming that it’s built 15 classifiers to evaluate certain traits with 80% accuracy. … Faception has reportedly signed a contract with a homeland security agency in the US to help identify terrorists.

The article emphasizes how problematic it can be to rely on AI systems to draw conclusions, citing University of Washington professor and “Master Algorithm” author Pedro Domingos:

As he told The Washington Post, a colleague of his had trained a computer system to tell the difference between dogs and wolves. It did great. It achieved nearly 100% accuracy. But as it turned out, the computer wasn’t sussing out barely perceptible canine distinctions. It was just looking for snow. All of the wolf photos featured snow in the background, whereas none of the dog pictures did. A system, in other words, might come to the right conclusions, for all the wrong reasons.

Indeed. Faception suggests that, for this reason, their software would be but one factor among many in any collection of evidence. And, perhaps it would—for most cases, most of the time. We join Vaas in her hope that government agencies will ultimately refuse to buy into this modern twist on Victorian-age pseudoscience.

Cynthia Murrell, December 6, 2016



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