Promising Future, Complex Past: Artificial Intelligence and the Legacy of Physiognomy presents the history of physiognomy—the practice of assessing one’s mental character based on physical attributes—and explores its influence on contemporary artificial intelligence and computer science technologies that gather and interpret bodily data. Now debunked as pseudoscience, physiognomy enjoyed periods of legitimacy and popularity over a history spanning millennia, influencing the fields of medicine, biology, philosophy, anthropology, psychiatry, and criminology. After serving as tool for scientific racism and eugenics, physiognomy was roundly discredited in the 20th century.

We’ve rejected the harmful aspects of physiognomy, but efforts to gain information from human physical characteristics continue with today’s technologies, which have the potential to make the world safer, improve health, and affect how we get information.

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Exhibit Specialist


Erika Mills

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History of Medicine Division, NLM

Susan L. Speaker, PhD

Subject Matter Expert

History of Medicine Division, NLM

Sameer Antani, PhD

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Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communications, NLM

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History of Medicine Division

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