Face Values

How much can we really know about people from their faces?


A presentation about the perils of A.I. and facial recognition could easily fall into fearmongering clichés about the end of privacy and the dangers of evil corporations. Instead Face Values: Exploring Artificial Intelligence, an award-winning exhibit showing at the Cooper Hewitt in New York through May 25, humbly poses the question: How much can we really know about people from their faces?

A brief history of attempts to glean information from facial topography by criminologists, beauticians, doctors, and eugenicists primes visitors with a sense of the fallibility of the science. Then interactive stations allow them to watch tools designed to do things like detect emotions or assess age succeed or fail in real time.

Face Values offers moments of humor—with both state and corporate hubris as the butt of the joke—leavened with occasional horror at the potential human cost of releasing unripe systems built of shaky or biased data into the wild. Repeated reassurances from the curators that the personal information collected from museumgoers won't be stored or shared add a delicious ironic twist.

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  1. Has privacy, at least the expectation of anonymity in public, ever been a thing? For most of human history people lived in small family-tribal groups and did not travel far, even over the course of their lifetimes. Even now, most of us still encounter people who know us during our daily routines.

    And other people have eyeballs and ears. And the ability to share what they see and hear by speaking and writing.

    The problem is not that we might be seen doing something. The problem is increasing social and legal proscription on behavior.

    1. Historically, privacy became a thing about the time that we lost the ability to start over. Yes, most people lived in small tribal groups but they had a vital safety valve. They could leave that group for the one in the next valley over and, for the most part, become a “new” person.

      1. Good observation.

      2. Yes, interesting observation. But it’s not entirely true. The 4th Amendment might be better written as a right to privacy, and people certainly could start over by moving away. In contrast, primitive societies, especially including England at least, and maybe most of Europe, tightly bound people to their villages. In England, you were part of a ten man group, collectively responsible for the malfeasance of each other. Strangers had to be reported to the authorities; if not, the entire group suffered. I’d say the concept of privacy first manifested once that loosened and people could move to the big cities or across the ocean.

        1. Hmm, not altogether clear. I mean that the ability to start over did not exist for a long spell, it was the loosening of those social restrictions which enabled people to move away and start over, and that is when privacy became possible.

        2. That’s interesting, but what you describe is the human condition throughout most of history. All modern, industrialized societies should have at least a strong concept of privacy, yet they don’t.

          I think America and Europe do ok at it, but in different ways. America has a tradition of not wanting to be watched by the government, Europe, not so much, yet they’re very jumpy about privacy laws in regards to what other private entities can collect and use information that would nominally be public.

          What’s confounding about Europe is they have no problem letting their government spy on them, but they don’t want William Sonoma to know how many waffle irons they bought last year.

          1. It is definitely odd how Europeans seem happy with the government knowing everything and can’t stand businesses knowing anything.

            Anyway, my main objection is that I think privacy as a general want did not exist until people could move without the government’s permission (or that of their ten man group). That ability to start over is what created the desire for privacy, not the loss of the ability to start over.

        3. I don’t pretend to be more than an amateur historian but I don’t think the example you cite was representative. That practice, as I recall, was applicable for only a limited period and even that was honored in the breach as much as in practice. If you simply abandoned your 10-man group, there were no or few consequences to the folks you left behind. And once you outran your notoriety, you could attempt to gain acceptance in a new town or country.

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  2. How much can we really know about people from their faces?

    For most libertarians, very little, ’cause they all have Asperger’s … amirite?

    Oh come on, someone had to make the joke.

  3. I’ve read where studies have proven that dogs look at the right side of a person’s face to read the temperament or mood of the person.
    (Any correction or confirmation is welcome).

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