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Physio·gnomy is a pseudoscience based on associating physical appearance – especially facial characteristics – with personal traits and behaviour. The term is derived from the Ancient Greek physis, meaning “nature”, and gnomon meaning “judge”.

Facial recognition systems can detect our emotions: when we are sad, happy, frustrated or excited. In 2010, researchers at Harrisburg University claimed they had developed a deep neural network model that could predict whether someone was a criminal based solely on a picture of their face, with 80 per cent accuracy and no racial bias. They said the software was intended to help law enforcement and prevent crime. In fact the researchers never provided evidence for their claim, and following the publication of a paper by 1,000 machine-learning researchers, sociologists, historians, and ethicists condemning the concept, no study was never published.

But what if such a technology did exist? 

Here, the artists present a prototype and work in progress version of Physio·gnomy, which will ultimately construct a visual and aural space that recreates facial recognition systems. Visitors will enter the space and experience what it is like to be profiled by facial recognition, based on material from real-life riots and protests where protesters have been criminally profiled and sometimes convicted.

The project will also include a machine-learning algorithm that detects emotions and generates a variety of mappings showing an individual’s facial traits, creating a story around this technology. A fake website screen tells us our crime rate as we change our emotions and our facial impressions and the audience interprets our facial traits in a gamified and dystopian environment. Is this the e-law platform of the future?

Physio·gnomy was developed as part of the second edition of CODE: Reclaiming Digital Agency, a collaborative project by IMPAKT [Centre for Media Culture] (Utrecht), School of Machines, Making & Make Believe (Berlin), Werktank (Leuven) and Privacy Salon / Privacytopia (Brussels and Antwerp).‍ CODE 2022 has come about thanks to the support of the Creative Industries Fund NL, City of Utrecht, Democracy and Media Fund, Fonds Soziokultur, Cultural Participation Fund, the Democracy and Media Fund, the Dutch Embassy in Belgium (Brussels), the Dutch Embassy in Germany (Berlin) and the Goethe Institut.


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