14 Feb. 2007
SETI League
PriUPS Project

Party Parser Prevents Prosopagnosia

Every once in a while I read an article on CNN that doesn't have an egregious numerical or scientific error.  This may be such an article; I don't know enough about the subject to comment on its accuracy.  (This doesn't normally stop me (much less anyone else), but since this blogitem isn't actually about the article, I don't feel it necessary to comment.)  The article was about "prosopagnosia" a word that I didn't know about a disease or condition or syndrome I didn't know existed.  Prosopagnosia is the difficulty or inability to recognize human faces.  In particularly severe cases, people whom you see every day appear to be strangers.  It can make you seem like a real jerk.  This is not especially debilitating for people who are real jerks, but you can imagine the consternation it can cause for others. 

My original intent was to write about an "invention" that needs to be made (or has been made) for the crop of cellphones with cameras, one of which I recently acquired.  I call the invention the "Party Parser" and you can see that my spasm of alliteration has been expanded by my discovery of the existence of this odd problem in the CNN article.  Among my superpowers* I do not number the recognition of celebrities or even ordinary people whom I don't know.  I'm sure I'm not a full-fledged prosopagnosiac because when I look in a mirror I'm ineluctably and lamentably certain that it is me.  Likewise, I have little difficulty recognizing people to whom I owe money, sometimes from great distances.  But I've always had a better memory for names and, oddly, voices, than I have had for faces, and I would love a Party Parser for my own.

The Party Parser

What is it?  You've guessed by now, of course.  You point your cellphone (or the video sensor on your glasses) at someone and the picture of that person is transmitted to a data bank which extracts the facial features and attempts to put a name (and perhaps dossier) to their owner.  There is nothing remotely far-fetched about this.  It's being done right now at sport events and other places where crowds congregate.  Cameras are set up and Homeland Security folks monitor the computer to identify terrorists.  This is a far more difficult task than the more limited recognition required of the Party Parser, which is also unlikely to have to contend with confounding factors such as hats, scarves, and Groucho moustaches.  The cellphone transmits the face to the service provider, and an ID pops up to tell you who it is.  The data bank would contain faces of celebrities, politicians, and, possibly, faces individuals contribute.  It would make matches based on feature comparison and also on probability, since it knows where you are, and has a good idea where these other people are (or aren't).  Wouldn't this service be great for autograph hunters!  Of course its scope would be determined by the information it has and presumably one could opt out for reasons of privacy.

I was going to promulgate this as a tantalizing idea for possible follow-up by someone who actually cares about celebrities until I came across the prosopagnosia article.  It says that, while severe cases are rare, mild cases may afflict one person in ten.  Computer recognition algorithms are notoriously sensitive to the number of comparisons they must make.  A tiny chip can recognize the words "yes" and "no" along with "one" through "ten."  It takes a pretty serious processor to work with ambiguous English dictation and even then errors are frequent.  Likewise, while the "Party Parser" might require the (expensive) services of a central computer and databank, a recognition engine that can distinguish from among a handful of friends and acquaintances could easily be run on the cellphone processor itself.  This is especially true when it has location and other cues, such as the sex and approximate age of the person in the image. These data could be added to the "contact" information that would routinely be entered along with a photograph by the cellphone's owner.

Unlike the more complicated Party Parser, a relatively simple "contact facial recognizer" should be something an individual software developer can create.  They give out prizes for this sort of thing, you know!  I'm willing to share yours.

* I am able to bend the first joint of one of my index fingers without bending the other joints, so I'm not totally without superpowers.

NP:  "Verla" - Mary Lee's Corvette

Richard Factor

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