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Artist Creates 3-D Portraits of Strangers Using DNA

Feb 10, 2013 05:51 AM EST

A Brooklyn-based information artist is creating 3-D versions of strangers' faces using genetic information found on items like chewing gum and cigarette butts that she collects around New York City.

As part of a project called Stranger Visions, Heather Dewey-Hagborg extracted DNA from wads of hair and other items that could contain traces of DNA. Using the genetic information, Dewey-Hagborg was able to determine the facial characteristics of anonymous people and reconstructed them as a 3-D printed sculpture, reports Co.Exist.

"I started fixating on this idea of hair and what can I know about someone from a hair," Dewey-Hagborg told Co.Exist.

The facial characteristics were determined based on three traits - gender, eye color and maternal ethnicity. She used such information to create a 3-dimensional face with the help of software that she wrote herself. Dewey-Hagborg developed different 3-D versions of a face. Based on her judgment, she determined which ones were found to be more aesthetically appealing and brought them to life with a 3-D printer. She then compared the 3-D models with the genetic code of the original person available on the web. 

Her software did not portray the exact replica of the original person, since she used only three traits for reconstrcution. But the 3-D face bears more of a family resemblance to the real person, according to Co.Exist. Dewey-Hagborg is planning to include more traits such as freckling and obesity.

The artist is not able to tell the person's age from their DNA and so the computer generates the face of a person in their 20s. There are also some other issues in generating a face using a computer. Computers do not understand what a human's gender or race looks like. This means the systems have to rely on human input for the data about what each cultural feature looks like. It involves creating a stereotype and developing faces using stereotyped ideas, a process which Dewey-Hagborg says is "problematic".

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