Face-Aging Software Presents a Terrible (and Fascinating) Social Dilemma

How-Old.net, a website that purports to estimate users’ age based on a picture of their face, went viral last week, garnering tens of thousands of hits within the first few hours of its release. The success of the Microsoft-made site, whose algorithm bases its judgments on facial features such as skin creases and laugh lines, showcases more than just technology’s ever-increasing ability to harness information in marvelous new ways. It also highlights several fascinating aspects of human nature.

First, there’s the rule which by now has surely become axiomatic amongst those attempting to create popular sites, lists, and apps: tell people about themselves. Nothing sparkles more in the eyes of Internet users than the quiz that breaks down their sex life, the horoscope that proffers career or relationship advice, or the chart that displays how they measure up against peers in wealth or beauty.

Psychologists call this the “self-assessment motive,” and research suggests it is basic to our nature. In fact, people will seek out information about themselves even when the news isn’t all good. This may explain the popularity of dating apps like Tinder, even among those with no intention of ever following through on a genuine rendezvous: there’s something thrilling not just about meting out judgments with the casual swipe of a finger, but also about being subjected oneself to the same standards of evaluation.

Microsoft’s site, though, taps a motive that runs deeper, perhaps, than even those that inform users of their wealth or attractiveness. The question of aging–of how well we’re weathering the passage of time–is one which, though it goes largely ignored by those whose baby fat still pads the face, becomes increasingly salient as the vicissitudes of late nights and bright days take their toll. How else can we explain the exorbitant demonstrations of financial —> Read More