Google faces

Googling for faces in maps of the earth (via Stephen Downes)

The way we perceive our environment is a complex procedure. By the help of our vision we are able to recognize friends within a huge crowd, approximate the speed of an oncoming car or simply admire a painting. One of human’s most characteristic features is our desire to detect patterns. We use this ability to penetrate into the detailed secrets of nature. However we also tend to use this ability to enrich our imagination. Hence we recognize meaningful shapes in clouds or detect a great bear upon astrological observations.

While this looks like a bit of fun, or a bit of explaining mystical things through simple cognitive processes, is there something more sinister? Is Google also throwing the data through other pattern recognition algorithms for things that might disturb our privacy a bit more? Or is Google throwing other data through face recognition algorithms in ways that are disturbing? (One assumes the answer is a resounding “yes”). Or is Google making a more profound statement about information along the lines of “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” … “Information doesn’t make meaning, people make meaning”? Or is it somewhat less profound in that people make meaning based on their algorithmic processing in the same unintelligent way that Google makes meaning – if you look for a face, you’ll find a face.

Which is actually quite an important point to emphasise for any would-be scientist: our quantitative methods can only find what we are looking for, and if we look for faces in a map of the earth, we’ll almost certainly find them eventually – but what do they mean?

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