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January 30, 2006

Celebrity Face Recognition

Face-recognition software is cool, but regardless of what the feds try to tell us, they've still got a ways to go before it becomes the exclusive identification tool. In the meantime, though, some entrepreneurs have started using this new technology as the basis of their companies, for uses other than crime-busting. One of the first commercially available versions popped up on the internet a few days ago. MyHeritage.com promises to analyze uploaded photos and compare the faces in them to those in its archive, identifying long-lost relatives and determining previously-unknown genetic relationships. Gelf decided to test it out.

One of the coolest features on MyHeritage is its celebrity corner. (Thanks, Bookofjoe, for pointing it out.) The site suggests you upload your own photo to see which celeb you resemble most, or upload a photo of a celeb and let the site determine who it is. (It also has a Celeb quiz—not working yet, when we last visited—that promises to let visitors test their own face-recognition skills in categories including movie stars and famous Jewish people.) MyHeritage.com didn't exactly ace the Washington Post's recent test of its celeb-matching feature, so Gelf uploaded a few celeb pics to see for ourselves.

The first picture we uploaded was a bigger version of this shot of Natalie Portman, sporting her I'm-so-hot-I-don't-need-hair look. MyHeritage timidly suggested Keira Knightly. Then Angelina Jolie. Maybe Shannon Doherty, it proffered. Fourth time was a charm, though.

OK, that was hard. Maybe their computers use some sort of hair algorithm in making their choices. Let�s try an easy one: George W. Bush. We uploaded his official pic, and almost instantaneously the site came back with the correct response. Perhaps it was because they were using the exact same picture for comparison, but no matter. Score one for the computers.

Last, we decided to try Heath Ledger. The picture we used isn't exactly common, but it didn't seem likely the Brokeback Mountain star would be mistaken for anyone else. The computer's first guess was Vivien Leigh, Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire. The computer then guessed the former King of Siam, Lindsay Lohan, Jimmy Carter (who seems to get misidentified a lot these days) and six others before giving up.

So MyHeritage isn't batting 1.000 here, but as people continue to submit pictures for analysis, the site's algorithm might get more accurate. Until then, perhaps we shouldn't use it for national-security purposes.

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