Identifying Faces of History: From Numbers to Names Uses AI to Identify Holocaust Victims

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An animation shows an AI-powered system called From Numbers to Names, which identifies Holocaust victims in photographs.

A face recognition system is helping identify victims of the Holocaust.

What’s new: From Numbers to Names matches individuals to faces in publicly available images related to the genocide of European Jews between 1941 and 1945.

How it works: Built by Google software engineer Daniel Patt and financier Jed Limmer, the site matches images uploaded by users with faces from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s photo collection.

  • Users with a free account can upload an image to the website. It works best with pre-1960s grayscale photographs that feature a single face, Patt told the Times of Israel.
  • Patt trained the system to calculate the similarity between uploaded photographs and the museum’s database of roughly 177,000 faces in around 35,000 photos. The system returns the 10 faces that have the highest similarity.
  • Patt, who is the descendant of Holocaust survivors, is working to add more photos from the Holocaust and pre-Holocaust eras. The project is also analyzing footage from the museum's 1,265-hour film and video archive.

Behind the news: Deep learning plays a growing role in understanding history.

  • DeepMind researchers recently built a neural network called Ithaca that’s designed to help historians read ancient Greek inscriptions by enhancing photos of them, dating them, and identifying where they were produced.
  • Anthropologists at Northern Arizona University trained neural networks to classify images of centuries-old pottery fragments according to the Native American cultures that archaeologists believe created them.
  • Transkribus offers several tools to recognize and transcribe historical handwriting. Users can train their own model using 50 to 100 pages of transcribed writing.
  • Image analysis guided by AI revealed a 2,000-year-old picture dug into the Peruvian desert. Researchers analyzing aerial imagery shot over Peru found a pattern that looks like a three-horned humanoid holding a staff.

Why it matters: Roughly 11 million people were systematically murdered by the government of Nazi Germany for their ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, or sexual orientation. Identifying the victims doesn’t erase the crime of their deaths, but it can help bring closure to their relatives and strengthen our resolve to make sure nothing similar ever happens again.

We’re thinking: While lives lost to war have decreased significantly over the decades, humanity has yet to progress beyond senseless killing. Learning about the atrocities of the past helps us view current events — such as the Russia-Ukraine war — with a critical eye and stand firm for human rights.

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