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Who’s in the picture? Anti-terror software might tell us

Face recognition software used to spot terrorists may be the answer to identifying unknown sitters in portraits.

A team from the University of California, Riverside, has received a one-year, $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to explore the art historical applications of the new technology.

“I came up with the idea while watching the news,” says Conrad Rudolph, a professor at the university and the director of the “Faces” (Faces, Art and Computerised Evaluation Systems) project. Rudolph has joined forces with a fellow art historian and a member of the electrical engineering department who is an expert in face recognition technology. A feasibility study compared scans of death masks, portrait busts and painted portraits of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-92) and Battista Sforza (1447-72). Initial results were promising, especially for frontal portraits.

“Our primary goal is to explore the limits of this technology,” Rudolph says, acknowledging that factors such as facial expressions, age, facial hair, angles and, most importantly, “artistic interpretation” present challenges. He stresses that the objective of the project is not to replace a trained eye, “which will always be the final arbitrator”, but to provide a new reference tool for art historians.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Who's in the picture?'