Leave it to Google to find an educational use for selfies.
Late last year, the search-engine giant quietly updated its previously under-the-radar Arts and Culture app with a feature that allows users to snap a selfie and have it “matched” to one of the museum portraits stored in Google’s vast library. Over the past week, the selfie-portrait comparisons have exploded on social media. If you’ve checked your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter page over the last few days, you’ve likely seen the evidence — with friends posting their likeness side by side with the classical portrait that, according to Google’s algorithm, most closely pairs up with their picture.
The app has been available for two years at both the iTunes and Google Play app stores, but its profile has been exponentially raised by the success of the new feature, which pairs each selfie with the five most accurate results from museums around the globe. Each match is rated on a percentage scale. The user can click on each to learn more details about the painting, including information about its artist, era and the art museum where it can be found.
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The app’s unique conflation of cutting-edge technology with classical art, and the shareable, often funny results that the feature spits out, have pushed it to the top position on both the iOS and Android free app charts. It also hasn’t hurt that many celebrities have posted their portrait doppelgängers, with some results finding them amused (CNN’s Jake Tapper) and others just amusing (Netflix animated star BoJack Horseman).
But not everyone is laughing: Some have complained that the preponderance of white male portraits in the Google archives — which skew heavily toward American and European art museums — makes matching for women and various nonwhite ethnic groups far less accurate and disarmingly uniform. And privacy advocates have raised alarms about the app’s use of emerging facial-recognition technology in order to find a match — though the Google disclaimer that must be accepted before using the app states that the company “won’t use data from your photo for any other purpose and will only store your photo for the time it takes to search for matches.”