The Google app can find your twin in the world of art

Konstantin Sheiko
January 24, 2018

Let us be honest about it: definitely, a compliment along the lines of ‘hey man, you look like young Brad Pitt’ will flatter most men. You can substitute Pitt with George Clooney, Elvis Presley, or maybe even Clark Gable if you prefer stylish antiquity. Similarly, positive comparative allusions to Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn usually work miracles on most women. But these are all beautiful and famous people, and, unfortunately, very few of us will ever warrant such complimentary comparisons. 

What about our resemblances to famous historical personalities that were lucky enough to have their noble faces and postures immortalized in grand artworks for posterity - like King Henry VIII, or Mona Lisa, for example? Surely, not all of these faces match the Hollywood definition of beauty. On the other hand, they all belong to real historical characters that became renowned, prominent or legendary, and deserved a personal portrait job done by the professional artist. 

I, for one, would happily settle down for an unknown episodic character as my doppelganger, located somewhere in the background of the painting - as long as this painting belongs to one of the world’s renowned artists and is on display in a museum or a gallery.   

According to my arts history professor, back in the olden days not that many people had enjoyed a luxury of working as professional artists. It was a long, expensive and cumbersome process. Very few people did it well, and even fewer had made it to stardom. Rembrandt, for example, died in hunger and poverty. Their collections were ravaged by time, war, fire, and private collectors. At the same time, only a handful of select people had been privileged enough to have their features painted on canvas. 

So today, even if we somewhat resemble Cromwell or Ivan the Terrible, there is a certain degree of inner satisfaction of having a famous, or perhaps even infamous, historical twin personality. Although only a select few of these guys are good looking, it matters not - at least you can stick to the ‘maybe they were rich and famous’ part of the equation. And even if they weren’t, the very fact that your face bears an eerie similarity to an odd artsy doppelganger from an old rarity painting makes it worth trying the app’s feature out, sometimes out of sheer, morbid curiosity.

Thanks to the ever-evolving technological progress, we can now quench the insatiable human curiosity related to the question ‘what famous person in human art history looked like me’. Behold Google’s initially useful in academic terms, but otherwise pretty unexciting Google Arts & Culture app. Most users overlooked the app until Google launched a new app feature last week that lets people match their selfie pictures to faces in famous artworks.

The app has become the latest visual tool that went absolutely viral entertaining the Internet community; at least since this weekend onwards, it has been riding high as the most-downloaded free app on both iOS and Android, overtaking other popular options such as Messenger and YouTube and landing in the top 10 on Android. Google said that so far people have taken more than 30 million selfies on the app, and this number is growing.

Although the app itself has been available since 2016 offering a sophisticated mix of articles and features on artists and art history garnered from an impressive range of art museums from around the world, it has become really popular only with an addition of the newest feature pertaining to comparative facial recognition/match. The app also offers a fantastic catalogue of artworks, letting the users explore the content by different styles, time periods, and even colors. This database includes more than 70,000 works of art contained in 1,200 museums and galleries across 70 countries.

The resourcefulness of the Google staff is commendable - using some fairly straightforward facial recognition technology to match selfies to paintings has become an instant hit, while the futility of human vanity is everlasting and truly reprehensible. Even celebrities have been trying it out - some big names such as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, musician Pete Wentz, and actors Felicia Day and Kumail Nanjiani shared their results on news feeds.

The only problem is the worldwide accessibility to this app. For example, judging by the continuous feedback, this popular feature does not work well in Europe, probably because of the EU’s regulations on facial recognition tech. The same problem has surfaced in Russia. This has led to more than a few disgruntled reviews from overseas. Apparently, many European users have downloaded this app only because of one feature. Europeans love Arts & Culture, but only if they can get their selfies matched to a famous historic personality.

In an unexpected twist, the app’s accessibility is also a minor problem in the US. Although the restrictions are confined to two states only, Illinois and Texas, some residents are angry that they can’t easily determine which work of art looks 42 percent like them while allowing Google to capture their biometric souls. Google confirmed that this is the case, but the company declined to comment on why. 

The experts believe the issue stems from laws in Illinois and Texas that put restrictions on how companies can use biometric data such as facial scans and fingerprints. The Chicago Tribune and Houston Chronicle were first to report on the laws affecting the feature's availability, pointing out that both states have laws blocking the collection of biometrics for unclear purposes. 

As the Chicago Tribune notes, a doorbell equipped with the feature that uses facial recognition is not available in units sold in Illinois thanks to the biometrics law. According to the expert opinion, Google is “being overly cautious” in its decision to keep the art-selfie feature out of Illinois. However, there is a legal precedent going on with people suing Facebook for collecting their biometic data, so Google’s apprehension is understandable at the very least.

For example, Illinois lawmakers have been especially aggressive in recent years with regards to privacy laws concerning geo-location tracking and biometric identifiers. The state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act requires that a company must inform people how it plans to use biometric data and how long it plans to store the data, and it must get consent in writing before collecting biometric data. 

Although Texas does not require written consent in its law, it is nevertheless problematic to use the app’s latest feature there. Earlier this year, Washington became the third state to enact biometrics laws, but the users in the state can access the art-selfie option. In meantime, according to Google Arts & Culture, the company is trying to expand the “mobile experiment”, but in the meantime, Illinois residents will just have to find their painted look-alike IRL.

In addition, the app has raised privacy concerns about what Google is doing with the data. Though, to be fair, there is no proof that Google is keeping biometric data or stealing souls. A Google spokesperson told The Washington Post that the feature does not keep photos after they are used to determine a fine-art doppelganger, that the system deletes your photo immediately after a match is made, and that it is not a scheme to create a database or train machine-learning programs. 

Apart from minor troublesome issues such as articles in the US legislature, a certain degree of mistrust and suspicion on behalf of experts, or the inability of European markets to enjoy, the latest upgrade to Google Arts & Culture app has been a resounding success with the users so far. It is destined to stay with us even after the Internet community will have had its share of fun playing with it, moving on to yet another item of virtual entertainment. After all, who wouldn't want to discover their historic duplicates?