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Machine Blends Faces and Races

What you would look like if … at Thurman Center


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David Flaxer steps into what looks like a photo booth in the basement of the George Sherman Union and sits down. When his face appears on the computer screen in front of him, Bruna Maia, rotating a joystick, places a cursor over the edges of his eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. With a few clicks, she stores his features in the computer, and the morphing process begins.

The booth, called the Human Race Machine, takes portraits of human faces and then alters them so that participants like Flaxer (SHA’11) can see themselves as Asian, black, white, Hispanic, Indian, and Middle Eastern. The booth, stationed at the Howard Thurman Center this week, has attracted more than 200 curious participants.

The Human Race Machine was inspired by the fact that “the DNA of any two humans is 99.97 percent identical,” says author and photographer Nancy Burson, who developed the machine in collaboration with software engineers at MIT to show people how they are inextricably linked. Appearing at museums and universities and on The Oprah Winfrey Show, it is used an educational tool, spawning dialogue about race and identity.

Burson also has a deeper, more ominous message: for good or for bad, looks can be altered by technology. She prefers using it for good and has sold the rights to a similar technology, the Age Machine, to the FBI, which uses it to create age progression images to find missing children.

The Human Race Machine was brought to campus by Boston University’s Hug Don’t Hate, a grassroots, peace-building student organization, to promote discussion and understanding. Organization president Maia (CAS’10) urges people “to question the social constructs associated with race and reach for common ground. It’s important for people to recognize there’s only one race — the human race.”

The Human Race Machine is a free exercise, available today from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. at the Howard Thurman Center, in the basement of the George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave. Hug Don’t Hate sponsors activities throughout the semester, including Free Hug Fridays on Marsh Plaza from noon to 3 p.m. and random acts of kindness every Thursday. Hug Don’t Hate will volunteer at Boston’s Home for Little Wanderers on November 14 from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, visit Hug Don’t Hate.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Machine Blends Faces and Races

  • Anonymous on 11.06.2009 at 10:56 am

    What an awesome event by Hug Don't Hate!!

    I am a BU alumnus and am sad to not be there today to enjoy this machine. What an awesome activity! Hope many students managed to take part in this unique opportunity :-) Thank you Hug Don’t Hate!

  • amlaskow on 11.06.2009 at 11:04 am

    Interesting machine

    It’s great that Hug Don’t Hate brought this to the BU campus. The machine allows for people to view themselves in a different light and probably opens a lot of eyes. Great video!

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