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Artist Reconstructs Faces Using DNA Left Behind in NYC and a 3D Printer -- Considers Implications of 'Genetic Surveillance


"...leaving artifacts which anyone could come along and mine for information."

Dewey-Hagborg said she isn't able to tell age from the DNA, so it usually generates a person in their 20s. (Image: YouTube screenshot)

There is human DNA discarded carelessly all over New York City and one artist has been picking up a little of it and making facial reconstructions of what its owner might look like. Sound creepy? Perhaps, but it's possible to an extent and speaks of larger themes of like the potential for surveillance.

"I’ve worked with face recognition and speech recognition algorithms in the past, but I had never considered the emerging possibility of genetic surveillance; that the very things that make us human: hair, skin, saliva, become a liability as we constantly face the possibility of shedding these traces in public space, leaving artifacts which anyone could come along and mine for information," Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a self-described information artist, wrote in a blog post introducing the concept that she has spent about a year working on.

Here is Dewey-Hgborg's self-portrait made from her own DNA. (Photo: Brian House via Heather Dewey-Hagborg)

Seeing a hair in the crack of a piece of glass, spurred Dewey-Hagborg to think of who its owner might be, what they look like, what their personality is like, etc. With these questions her "Stranger Visions" project was born.

To make her point regarding genetic surveillance, Dewey-Hagborg has been using currently available technology, which she wrote allows her to extract DNA from hair, locate certain traits and create what a person's face might look like.

She has taken DNA samples found on the streets of New York City from a cigarette butts and gum and has been able to determine gender, ethnicity (based on the mother's side) and eye color. Take a look at the face's she has been able to reconstruct based on her DNA analysis here.

Dewey-Hagborg told CoExist recently that while her reconstructions might have some resemblance to the actual person, she would need to include more traits to make them more accurate and as of right now, she said, "it's just impossible." But with rapidly advancing technology, it's not inconceivable.

Dewey-Hagborg described the software that allows her to conduct such genetic analysis and make physical assumptions about a person. She tested out the software she refined for her purposes on a few people who had made their genetic code available on the Web and compared her models of them based on their DNA to their actual faces (see the comparisons here and here).

Listen to Dewey-Hagborg talk about her project and its point in this presentation:

Here Dewey-Hagborg shows how close her software can come to matching Kurt Anderson (below) from Studio 360, a co-production of Public Radio International and WNYC Radio.

Dewey-Hagborg said she isn't able to tell age from the DNA, so it usually generates a person in their 20s. (Image: YouTube screenshot)

Watch the clip:

Overall, Dewey-Hagborg told CoExist that she hopes the project is thought provoking to people.

In January, her work for Stranger Visions was featured in a showcase at Eyebeam, a nonprofit art and technology center located in New York City.

(H/T: Gizmodo)

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