Sixty years ago, a sharecropper’s son invented a technology to identify faces. Then the record of his role all but vanished. Who was Woody Bledsoe, and who was he working for?
Woody Bledsoe was sitting in a wheelchair in his open garage, waiting. To anyone who had seen him even a few months earlier – anyone accustomed to greeting him on Sundays at the local Mormon church, or to spotting him around town on his jogs – the 74-year-old would have been all but unrecognizable. The healthy round cheeks he had maintained for much of his life were sunken. The degenerative disease ALS had taken away his ability to speak and walk, leaving him barely able to scratch out short messages on a portable whiteboard. But Woody’s mind was still sharp. When his son Lance arrived at the house in Austin, Texas, that morning in early 1995, Woody immediately began to issue instructions in dry-erase ink.
He told Lance to fetch a trash can from the backyard – one of the old metal kinds that Oscar the Grouch lives in. Lance grabbed one and set it down near his father. Then Woody sent him into the house for matches and lighter fluid. When Lance got back, Woody motioned to two large file cabinets inside the garage.
They’d been around ever since Lance could remember. Now in his late thirties, Lance was pretty sure they hadn’t been opened since he was a kid. And he knew they weren’t regular file cabinets. They were the same kind he’d seen when he worked on sonar equipment for US nuclear submarines – fireproof and very heavy, with a strong combination lock on each drawer. His father slowly began writing numbers on the whiteboard, and to Lance’s astonishment, the combination worked. “As I opened the first drawer,” he tells me almost 25 years later, “I felt like Indiana Jones.”
A thick stack of old, rotting documents lay inside. Lance began removing them and placing them in his father’s hands. Woody looked over the piles of paper two inches at a time, then had his son toss them into the fire he’d started in the burn barrel. Some, Lance noticed, were marked “Classified” or “Eyes only.” The flames kept building until both cabinets were empty. Woody insisted on sitting in the garage until all that remained was ash.
Lance could only guess at what he’d helped to destroy. For nearly three decades, his father had been a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, working to advance the fields of automated reasoning and artificial intelligence. Lance had always known him to be a wide-eyed scientific optimist, the sort of man who, as far back as the late 1950s, dreamed of building a computer endowed with all the capabilities of a human – a machine that could prove complex mathematical theorems, engage in conversation, and play a decent game of Ping-Pong.
But early in his career, Woody had been consumed with an attempt to give machines one particular, relatively unsung, but dangerously powerful human capacity: the ability to recognize faces. Lance knew that his father’s work in this area – the earliest research on facial-recognition technology – had attracted the interest of the US government’s most secretive agencies. Woody’s chief funders, in fact, seem to have been front companies for the CIA. Had Lance just incinerated the evidence of Washington’s first efforts to identify individual people on a mass, automated scale?
Today, facial recognition has become a security feature of choice for phones, laptops, passports, and payment apps. It promises to revolutionize the business of targeted advertising and speed the diagnosis of certain illnesses. It makes tagging friends on Instagram a breeze. Yet it is also, increasingly, a tool of state oppression and corporate surveillance. In China, the government uses facial recognition to identify and track members of the Uighur ethnic minority, hundreds of thousands of whom have been interned in “reeducation camps.” In the US, according to The Washington Post, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI have deployed the technology as a digital dragnet, searching for suspects among millions of faces in state driver’s license databases, sometimes without first seeking a court order. Last year, an investigation by the Financial Times revealed that researchers at Microsoft and Stanford University had amassed, and then publicly shared, huge data sets of facial imagery without subjects’ knowledge or consent. (Stanford’s was called Brainwash, after the defunct café in which the footage was captured.) Both data sets were taken down, but not before researchers at tech startups and one of China’s military academies had a chance to mine them.
Woody’s facial-recognition research in the 1960s prefigured all these technological breakthroughs and their queasy ethical implications. And yet his early, foundational work on the subject is almost entirely unknown. Much of it was never made public.
Fortunately, whatever Woody’s intentions may have been that day in 1995, the bulk of his research and correspondence appears to have survived the blaze in his garage. Thousands of pages of his papers – 39 boxes’ worth – reside at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. Those boxes contain, among other things, dozens of photographs of people’s faces, some of them marked up with strange mathematical notations – as if their human subjects were afflicted with some kind of geometrical skin disease. In those portraits, you can discern the origin story of a technology that would only grow more fraught, more powerful, and more ubiquitous in the decades to come.
Woodrow Wilson Bledsoe – always Woody to everyone he knew – could not remember a time when he did not have to work. He was born in 1921 in the town of Maysville, Oklahoma, and spent much of his childhood helping his father, a sharecropper, keep the family afloat. There were 12 Bledsoe kids in all. Woody, the 10th, spent long days weeding corn, gathering wood, picking cotton, and feeding chickens. His mother, a former schoolteacher, recognized his intelligence early on. In an unpublished essay from 1976, Woody described her as an encouraging presence – even if her encouragement sometimes came from the business end of a peach-tree switch.
When Woody was 12 his father died, plunging the family even deeper into poverty in the middle of the Great Depression. Woody took on work at a chicken ranch while he finished high school. Then he moved to the city of Norman and began attending classes at the University of Oklahoma, only to quit after three months to join the Army on the eve of World War II.
Showing an aptitude for math, Woody was put in charge of a payroll office at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where wave after wave of US soldiers were being trained for combat. (“Our group handled all black troops,” wrote the Oklahoman, “which was a new experience for me.”) Then on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, Woody was finally deployed to Europe, where he earned a Bronze Star for devising a way to launch large naval vessels – built for beach landings – into the Rhine.
Having landed in the European theater just as Allied troops were accelerating to victory, Woody seemed to have an unusually positive experience of war. “These were exciting times,” he wrote. “Each day is equivalent to a month of ordinary living. I can see why men get enamored with war. As long as you are winning and don’t sustain many casualties, everything is fine.” He spent the following summer in liberated Paris, his mind and his experience of the world expanding wildly in an atmosphere of sometimes euphoric patriotism. “The most sensational news I ever heard was that we had exploded an atomic bomb,” Woody wrote. “We were glad that such a weapon was in the hands of Americans and not our enemies.”
Woody couldn’t wait to get back to school once the war ended. He majored in mathematics at the University of Utah and finished in two and a half years, then went off to Berkeley for his PhD. After grad school, he got a job at the Sandia Corporation in New Mexico, working on government-funded nuclear weapons research alongside such luminaries as Stanislaw Ulam, one of the inventors of the hydrogen bomb. In 1956 Woody flew to the Marshall Islands to observe weapons tests over Enewetak Atoll, parts of which to this day suffer worse radioactive contamination than Chernobyl or Fukushima. “It was satisfying to me to be helping my own dear country remain the strongest in the world,” he wrote.
Sandia also offered Woody his first steps into the world of computing, which would consume him for the rest of his career. At first, his efforts at writing code tied directly to the grim calculations of nuclear weapons research. One early effort – “Program for Computing Probabilities of Fallout From a Large-Scale Thermonuclear Attack” – took into account explosive yield, burst points, time of detonation, mean wind velocity, and the like to predict where the fallout would land in the case of an attack.
But as his romance with computing grew, Woody took an interest in automated pattern recognition, especially machine reading – the process of teaching a computer to recognize unlabeled images of written characters. He teamed up with his friend and colleague Iben Browning, a polymath inventor, aeronautical engineer, and biophysicist, and together they created what would become known as the n-tuple method. They started by projecting a printed character – the letter Q, say – onto a rectangular grid of cells, resembling a sheet of graph paper. Then each cell was assigned a binary number according to whether it contained part of the character: Empty got a 0, populated got a 1. Then the cells were randomly grouped into ordered pairs, like sets of coordinates. (The groupings could, in theory, include any number of cells, hence the name n-tuple.) With a few further mathematical manipulations, the computer was able to assign the character’s grid a unique score. When the computer encountered a new character, it simply compared that character’s grid with others in its database until it found the closest match.
The beauty of the n-tuple method was that it could recognize many variants of the same character: Most Qs tended to score pretty close to other Qs. Better yet, the process worked with any pattern, not just text. According to an essay coauthored by Robert S. Boyer, a mathematician and longtime friend of Woody’s, the n-tuple method helped define the field of pattern recognition; it was among the early set of efforts to ask, “How can we make a machine do something like what people do?”
Around the time when he was devising the n-tuple method, Woody had his first daydream about building the machine that he called a “computer person.” Years later, he would recall the “wild excitement” he felt as he conjured up a list of skills for the artificial consciousness:
“I wanted it to read printed characters on a page and handwritten script as well. I could see it, or a part of it, in a small camera that would fit on my glasses, with an attached earplug that would whisper into my ear the names of my friends and acquaintances as I met them on the street … For you see, my computer friend had the ability to recognize faces.”
To be continue
Source: WiredRelated posts: