The artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg makes these busts using a 3-D printer and DNA she finds on the street.

Using software she wrote herself, she takes DNA from hair and determines eye color, hair color, and ethnicity.

She uses databases of faces to determine what a person’s ancestry means their face might look like.

"In order to generate a face, you need to teach a computer what a face is," Dewey-Hagborg explains.

She wants to make you understand that genetics isn’t as simple as what you might see on a TV police procedural.

Even something as simple as determining eye color based on DNA can prove harder than you’d imagine. "There’s an 80% chance that this person has brown eyes and 20% chance that they have green eyes," she explains. "You have to make that call."

"It does involve, essentially, creating a stereotype, and generating faces based on those stereotyped ideas, so that’s something I’m hoping to question with this work."

2013-02-07

Co.Exist

These 3-D Portraits Were Created Using Only A Person's DNA

Stranger Visions is an art project which tries to determine what we look like based on a single strand of hair.

How much information about ourselves do we leave behind in public, as we shed saliva, hair, and sweat throughout the day? It’s a question that drives the artwork of Heather Dewey-Hagborg, whose project Stranger Visions reconstructs the faces of the anonymous as 3-D printed sculptures, using genetic detritus found in chewing gum, cigarette butts, and wads of hair around New York City.

"I started fixating on this idea of hair and what can I know about someone from a hair," explains Dewey-Hagborg, a Brooklyn-based information artist. Her faces were determined based on looking at just three traits—gender, eye color, and maternal ethnicity—an admittedly simplified look (but still more advanced than police forensics labs which use a kit to determine hair and eye color from a sample). Plugging that information into software she wrote herself, she could spin up different 3-D versions of a face—eventually settling on the ones she finds most interesting aesthetically—and bring them to life with a 3-D printer.

The resulting busts may bear, at most, a "family resemblance" to the original person, Dewey-Hagborg says. “Part of that is that I need to do more experiments," to incorporate more traits. "Part of that is that it’s just impossible."

While DNA analysis may be popularly understood as a straightforward process, thanks to simplistic representations on forensic lab TV mysteries where a single hair is as compelling evidence as a smoking gun, Dewey-Hagborg soon found out that "there’s a whole lot more subjectivity than we’re kind of lead to believe." Even something as simple as determining eye color based on DNA can prove harder than you’d imagine. "There’s an 80% chance that this person has brown eyes and 20% chance that they have green eyes," she explains. "You have to make that call."

Subjectivity doesn’t enter into the equation just at the level of DNA analysis but during machine learning as well. "In order to generate a face, you need to teach a computer what a face is," Dewey-Hagborg explains. But how do you tell a computer what something as complicated as a human’s gender or race looks like? By feeding it images of humans with those characteristics, a process which involves human input— the encoding of cultural biases and the simplification of complexity. Databases of faces often come from "college students in some particular region in the world," says Dewey-Hagborg, which clearly could skew toward a less diverse-swath of humanity. But in Dewey-Hagborg’s software, the only way to determine what mouths and lips look like is based on ethnic prototypes linked to maternal ancestry.

Dewey-Hagborg calls the process "problematic," and she says she hopes her work provokes more of a discussion around subjectivity in both DNA analysis and computer modeling of faces. "It does involve, essentially, creating a stereotype, and generating faces based on those stereotyped ideas, so that’s something I’m hoping to question with this work."

Soon, she hopes to expand the project to include more traits, including freckling and predisposition to obesity.

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6 Comments

  • FarVision1

    Where is the 3D printer? I just see computer monitor image generation.

  • Nick Robalik

    Fake, fake, fake. DNA doesn't provide this information. Go download a piece of software called FaceGen and you can do the exact same thing - because it's exactly what this person used to generate these random faces.

  • Macca

     Um. That's exctly what she was saying in the article, so I don't get why you're acting like you're calling the artist out? She points out that she only pulled 3 very generic bits that she could determine through DNA, and just picked the most interesting face from what the computer churned out. AND mentioned that these faces would have no chance of looking like the actual person. That was her point - that DNA testing isn't as rigorous as most people believe. Why are you acting high and mighty about something the artist disclosed herself?

  • Epicvoyager

    Would be nice to see some comparisons with the actual people. Perhaps she could work with volunteers that send in their DNA and then only reveal themselves after the composite is complete.

  • Gil

    Exactly. That's what would impress me: if they looked really similar to a real picture of the person. 

  • Very Interested

    I agree completely. Very cool project as it is, but it would be incredible to see comparisons between real people and 3D models of them generated by their DNA, however, vague the resemblance. It would also be a great way to refine the approach.