See the portraits that evade facial recognition algorithms

Facial recognition algorithms are at work everywhere in our world, from Phone Xs that rely on the technology as a security measure to the smart glasses that police in China are using to identify criminal suspects. That doesn’t mean facial recognition is perfect–in fact, it’s provably biased: A study of three major algorithms found discrepancies in accuracy based on the subject’s race and gender. Some activists are even developing ways to confuse the technology.

How do you have to distort a face so that facial recognition algorithms no longer see a face–and evade the technology that has become so pervasive in our world? That was the question the Seoul-based artistic duo Shin Seung Back and Kim Yong Hun posed to a group of 10 different painters. The result is their series Nonfacial Portrait, a striking collection of painted portraits that evade the algorithms.

[Photo: courtesy Shinseungback Kimyonghun]

The paintings, which are currently on display at the Seoul Museum of Art, are each so wildly different that you wouldn’t know they were all inspired by a single photo of Yong Hun.

One has a sky blue outline of a bust, with the eyes, mouth, and nose scattered around the canvas. Another looks like the face has been entirely blurred out. Others are so heavily abstracted you can barely make out the portrait at all.

“It is not easy to paint a portrait whose face is not detected by machine vision,” the duo, who go by the collective name Shinseungback Kimyonghun, tell Fast Company via email. “If one makes the portrait close to the subject, machines will easily detect the face. And if one distorts the face too much, the painting could not be seen as a portrait of the person.”

[Photo: courtesy Shinseungback Kimyonghun]To ensure each painting wouldn’t be detected by a computer, Shinseungback Kimyonghun rigged up a camera with three facial recognition algorithms wherever each painter would be working. As the artists worked, the camera searched for faces and a monitor let the artist know if it found any, guiding the work so that the final product would be invisible to all three algorithms. At the museum, a video documenting each artist’s process is displayed on a screen next to the finished portrait.

“To complete a nonfacial portrait, the painters had to find a small visual space that only humans can perceive,” they say. “Have the painters succeeded? Machines cannot find any faces in the portraits. But do we see the face of the subject in all of the paintings?”

For the pair, this gap between what machines can see and what humans can see is a necessary one–even if it continues to shrink.

“It will be more and more difficult to find unique human abilities as technology develops further,” they say. “But we need to keep looking for it, not to find our supremacy over machines but to know who we are.”