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February 23, 2015 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Is there a system that describes and measures appearances of humans precisely?

It would be similar to how phonemes are used in linguistics to describe speech, or how constraints or automated tests can describe behavior of a program? The idea is that rather than describing whole features (large brown eyes, scar on left, etc.) you'd describe a person in a way that can only result in a unique face/body when used to make a likeness or find a person -- or you could use it to discover similarities between people you wouldn't catch when grouping by demographics/class/culture, similar to how the Music Genome Project makes surprising connections between songs. The closest concept I have found is the set of basic shapes used to teach drawing, but that won't do.
posted by michaelh to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How about Eigenfaces?
posted by un petit cadeau at 2:15 PM on February 23, 2015

Before fingerprints, police used the Bertillon System.
posted by djb at 2:17 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oddly enough, the Wikipedia article I was going to post was linked to by un petit cadeau:

And here's the reason why the system you want doesn't really exist in the late modern West:

At various points in history, certain anthropometrics have been cited by advocates of discrimination and eugenics, often as part of novel social movements or based upon pseudoscientific claims.

It's not like Western Civ couldn't cook up the system you're looking for (which is why facial recognition tech is possible and under development), but typically the kinds of people who do so wind up being discredited by current events. E.g. note the speed with which racism fell out of fashion in physical anthro when WWII was in the process of ending.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 2:34 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Somatotypes by William Sheldon (more) was an attempt to denote body types by a series of three numbers. Pretty crank theory though, more akin to phrenology than actual description.
posted by Nelson at 3:17 PM on February 23, 2015

It sounds like what you're asking about is the basis upon which facial-recognition algorithms work. These extract "feature values" (interestingly, the word "feature" here has nothing to do with facial features but is an abstract mathematical concept) from the face and use those for scoring similarity.
posted by adamrice at 7:01 PM on February 23, 2015

The British police used so called 'IC' codes (Identity Codes, yes, IC 'codes' is a tautology) to rapidly provide the apparent ethnicity of suspects over the radio. They also have a longer set of codes called the Self-Defined Ethnicity codes, which are used when filling in paperwork like stop and search reports.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:10 AM on February 24, 2015

Thanks, everyone. The historical attempts were interesting (agree the eugenics angle is a good reason to cool on the idea.)

It looks like the CV application is legitimately useful and also approaches the ideal (for this question) of finding similarities between unconnected people while being blind to convenient terms for ethnicity and facial features.
posted by michaelh at 10:38 PM on July 19, 2015

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