The mystery photo explained

Click the image to enlarge it.

First, let me tell you that I stared at this photo for 15 minutes before I wrote the page you viewed before arriving here.

The explanation is that this is not a person all, but a human likeness created by artificial intelligence (briefly explained below). This girl or woman you believe you are seeing is nobody. She never existed.

The longer I stare at the photo, the more frustrated I become. I want her to be real. How can she never have existed? The thought struck me that she could have been my child had I married a different woman. Whatever my imagination could dream up, the fact is, she is nobody, created in two dimensions by a computer.

Still, I want her to be real. I want to know her. She looks so nice. I want her to be happy, maybe married with a wonderful husband and children. I want her to come to my home for dinner, give me a big hug when we greet, and then we’ll sit on the patio and talk, laugh, and watch the kids play.

I feel very sad she never lived. But that’s dumb! How can seeing her photo, knowing she is no more real than a cartoon character have such a profound effect on me? My eyes tell me that she must be real. She must be!

For me, trying to understand this photo is sort of like trying to understand the concept of endless space. No matter how long I think about it, it can’t conceive of it.

Here are two other people who never existed.

And, now, here’s how these “people” were created. It’s through a technique called GAN or Generative Adversarial Networks. It’s a relatively new concept in machine learning, introduced in 2014. The goal is to synthesize artificial samples, such as images, that are indistinguishable from authentic ones. A common example of a GAN application is to generate artificial face images like you see here by learning from a dataset of celebrity faces. One of the main challenges is controlling their output, i.e. changing specific features such as pose, face shape and hair style in an image of a face.

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? What do you think? Please leave a comment.

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Bob Love

The intro made me look more closely than I would have otherwise, and came to the right conclusion: it’s a trumped photo (cf. fake news!, only really). There are several ‘not quite right’ things about it: hair of her part is weird; and hair to (her) R of forehead odd; spot above L ear, etc. Others seem clearly wrong: neck and shadow under ends of hair R shoulder; fading ends of L necklace when surrounds are in focus; shadows of hair L of neck not equal to shadows of lips or chin, etc. But, could all be results of adding parts of different pics of real person … so ?????

Carson Axtell

Every day, reality is catching up with worlds imagined previously only in science fiction. Welcome to the inception of The Matrix.


The girl has many faces.

Bill Massicotte

It’s no wonder people are afraid of the unknown such as AI

Jim c

I realized as I was looking at the picture that it had to be a composite, the right and left are not the same.


I experienced a little uncanny valley with the photo on the right. I think the discomfort comes from the eyes.


I think that it’s a great idea. Think about it. You could create an alternate person profile to be your online person and no one would be the wiser!


I’m just happy to know Santa and Bugs Bunny are real.

Calvin Wing

I have read that through this process Hollywood will be able to create movies starring long dead actors and actresses as well as current artists.
Fortunately there is long-standing court decisions and legal precedents dealing with altered photographic evidence. It’s just a shame that the effort put into this type of fraudulent activity weren’t used towards more altruistic endeavors.


The vague disquiet you got is nothing compared to the concrete implications of media synthesis. Would you like to see certain politicians admit to doing certain horrible things? Their face perfectly animated, their voice perfectly mimicked… voila, we have video “proof” of their guilt. Programs to do this exist already, just TRY to prove its faked. You won’t be able to, because the same precision authentication programs that analyze voice and video would now be used to create it in order to pass its own tests in a loop-back. We can CREATE reality, true or faked.

Gene Bjerke

I noticed that she had two different earrings and half a necklace as well as half a shirt collar. I assumed it was created by stitching together a right half and a left half of a face.

Colin Grant

What are you going to say when a real person shows that does look exactly like this one. Everyone has a twin so they say, mine lives within thirty miles of me and I have never seen him. My nephew crossed the street to say hello but he figured out it wasn’t me at a distance of three feet. Make an online contest of it and you might find the twin who will not be happy with not existing.

Kenneth Serr

Chuck I feel just as you do, how can someone so pretty be a made up face. It just shows how electronics have influenced our lives. Also makes us appreciate what we have in our families.
Pastor Ken

Joe Gluckman

Spooky isn’t it?


We should all, unfortunately, get used to this. AI (of which machine learning is just one part) will keep accelerating and create bad outcomes.

It’s unfortunate that government is doing nothing to protect us. I have no problem with created images being used for advertising. I do object when completely artificial images of people are created that can’t be detected by us real folk. The advertiser should be forced to indicate in some way its not real, a code for example on the images that tells me it created or heavily modified. I’m not holding my breath.

This will become an Orwellian nightmare. Lots of implications for our society.

BTW: I do machine learning for a living.