A situation in which someone sees a pattern or image of something that does not exist, for example a face in a cloud, is an example of a phenomenon known as “pareidolia”. It is the human tendency to read significance into random or vague stimuli (both visual and auditory).

The term comes from the Greek words “para” (παρά), meaning beside or beyond, and “eidolon” (εἴδωλον), meaning form or image. Though animals or plants can “appear” in clouds and human speech can do the same in static noise, the appearance of a face where there is none is perhaps the most common variant of pareidolia.

Pareidolia was once thought of as a symptom of psychosis, but is now recognized as a normal, human tendency. Carl Sagan theorized that hyper facial perception stems from an evolutionary need to recognize — often quickly — faces. He wrote in his book, “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”

Though there is something basely human about the tendency to see faces in the non-human shapes around us, to anthropomorphize odd pieces of hardware or rocks on a hillside, that computers see humans where there are none should not be all too surprising. Facial-recognition software is a tough technological feat, and in the process, computers are bound to come up with false positives.

Facial recognition techniques give computers their own flavor of pareidolia. In addition to responding to actual human faces, facial recognition systems, just like the human vision system, sometimes produce false positives, latching onto some set of features in the image as matching their model of a face. Rather than the millions of years of evolution that shapes human vision, their pareidolia is based on the details of their algorithms and the vicissitudes of the training data they’ve been exposed to.

Although a computer may, like a human, find false positives in the world around it, its sensibility for what makes a set of polygons a face is still, somehow, off. On its surface, a computer’s a tendency to pareidolia, this very human phenomenon, seems human-like. In a strange echo of the tendency to see human faces in random shapes, we see our reflection in a machine’s cognition — a sort of pareidolia of the mind. We look at a computer’s pareidolia and think, We make those very same mistakes!

But, in fact, we don’t. The mistakes are different. A computer’s flaws are still very machine — and ours are very human. EVP has been described as “auditory pareidolia.” The allegations of hidden messages in popular music have also been described as auditory pareidolia.

The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia in an attempt to gain insight into a person’s mental state. Since the cards have been designed without any specific image in mind, this is an example of “directed pareidolia.”


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