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FaceTopo at Catalyst Conversations: Art and Science in Dialogue

Updated: May 30



In April, FaceTopo founders presented at the Catalyst Conversations monthly lecture series held at MIT’s Bartos Theater. Catalyst Conversations’ mission is to present provocative talks by visual artists and scientists that can spark dialogue, synergy, and future projects.

After talks by Dr. Robinson, “Is Your Face a Window to your Genome?” and Ms. Chu, “A Face in the Cloud” wrapped up, Robinson and Chu opened up the dialogue to include the audience of artists, scientists, technologists, and innovators. This portion of the evening catalyzed a great discussion and enabled those in attendance to dive deeper into the subject matter together. It was convergence!


A gentleman opened the Q+A portion of the evening with thoughtful musings about FaceTopo's potential to be used with long-term photography projects like that of Nicholas Nixon photographing the Brown sisters over a period of 30 years. Susan Minot writes for the New York Times Magazine (Oct. 3, 2014), “The Brown sisters have been photographed together every year since 1975.” Audience members appreciated the facial expressions and body language seen in the photos over the years that indicate the bonds and relationships between the sisters. This wouldn’t come out in a Facetopo, as our 3D selfie capture is designed for individuals, not groups. Could FaceTopo be used to map how age affects your face? Well we hadn’t really thought of using it that way, but maybe it could - we’ll have to collect the data and see. After a significant amount of data is collected, perhaps we will learn of an optimal age range for the most accurate FaceTopo. FaceTopo isn’t valid for people under age 14 because the face undergoes substantial morphological changes during puberty.


There were questions about security and access to the data. As the FaceTopo is a citizen science project, there is the expectation of open data. Will the data be shared with scientists? With artists? The answer: User privacy is our highest priority and access to data will only come if it doesn’t compromise User privacy. FaceTopo findings will be published in scientific journals without revealing the identities of Users.


A geneticist in the audience reminded the room of the strong effects of environment on traits (manifested in many ways including epigenetics) such that genomes only indicate genetic potential. We are all too aware of the ravages of time on our faces.  And what about the scientific merit of this whole endeavor?  To be honest, the FaceTopo team’s primary motivation for the project is curiosity -- will the project find previously unquantified connections among us? Do faces, noses, lips, or eyes tend to fall into groups?  How many face twins might each of us have? How will the world’s face topology map link to ancestral migrations or population mixing? Will unexpected connections arise? But because we’re in unknown territory here, one only hope that the big data-scale of the project will be enough to see signal in the noise: hence an App that can collect diverse facial data from many different people. This brings us to one of our favorite aspects of FaceTopo: it involves non-scientists as citizen scientists. Citizen scientists create and submit their own face data map to the project, which works toward building a greater understanding of facial morphology. When enough data samples are analyzed, participants will then be able to learn specifically about their own face. FaceTopo presents an interesting platform to explore the convergence of art and science methodologies, and will most certainly shine a light on sampling techniques and epidemiological methods.


There was discussion about 3D photography techniques. Some software such as Microsoft Autodesk’s 123D-Catch uses the global positioning system of the camera: the subject remains stationary while many different photos are taken with the camera in different places, then the pictures are stitches together to make a 3D image. FaceTopo implements a different technique: keeping the camera stationary while the user presents different perspectives of their face to the camera.

@Cash4YourWarhol's tweeted question to Murray: “What was the most surprising thing you learned when you had your genome done?” elicited the response: “How surprisingly little information is known about any of our genomes today.”


Audience members were very curious whether faces could be used to identify potential for disease, and what maladies might be diagnosed, “Could faces predict Alzheimer’s?” At the moment, no, but perhaps as more becomes known this could be a possibility.

Associative face blindness was discussed. How do the face-blind draw faces? This one stumped us, but at the reception an audience member shared with us: there are two types of face blindness one is more perceptive and the other more associative. Next time we’ll have to call on her!


By the end of the night, Chu even learned of her doppelganger - one of the audience members (who is Chinese) has a sister based in Los Angeles. We’ll have to have her make a FaceTopo!


For updates on the latest news from FaceTopo follow @Facetopo on Twitter.

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