Eyes Opened By Machine That ‘Changes’ One’s Race

Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 7, 2006

Emily Bush, a junior at The Ellis School, is white. But for a few fleeting seconds, she could see herself as black, Hispanic, Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian.

What she noticed most was that the computer-generated photos changed her on the outside. “It’s nothing inside you,” said Emily, of Edgewood.

Still, her friend, junior Grace McAllister of Shadyside, who also is white and saw herself transformed, wondered about how it would feel to look different and how it would affect her life. “I just don’t know how I would feel,” she said.

Conversations about race and diversity will be common this week at The Ellis School because students there have a chance to use the Human Race Machine, a creation by Nancy Burson, a New York City artist with an international reputation.

“It gives everyone a chance to think about some really interesting questions,” said Mary Grant, head of the Shadyside school, which has 470 girls.

Ms. Burson has done pioneering work in “morphing” technology which helps law enforcement officials to age pictures of missing people.

Morphing technology is used in the Human Race Machine, which is touring colleges and other schools. Its stop here is part of The Ellis School’s special events honoring the school’s 90th anniversary.

The exhibit looks much like a photo booth into which one might plug quarters at a mall. A sign along its side emphasizes its theme: There is no gene for race.

The visitor must carefully line up her face with lines and marks on the screen so that it can be mapped. Then, the user can choose a race and see her features transformed.

The changes aren’t precise. Some students didn’t think the photo looked like them when they clicked the button for their own race because the machine did not simply revert to the original photo.

But when senior Alicia Atterberry of Morningside, whose grandfather is Filipino, looked at the Asian version of her face, she said, “I look like my grandpa.”

Olivia Fukui, an eighth-grader from Fox Chapel, was curious to see what she would look like as an Asian, given that she is one-fourth Japanese.

“There are only subtle differences between the races, but people can pick out what race you are,” she said. “You’re still the same person inside.”

And whatever the race, Daniela Valdes of Squirrel Hill, who is Hispanic, said, “You’re still recognizable as yourself.”

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