IBM Art with Watson: Hidden Portraits
An exploration into the hidden personas of some of history's foremost thinkers.

How man sees machine is a well-documented subject. But what about how machine sees man? We asked IBM Watson to show us through data analysis, and in doing that, he uncovered the true nature of seven of the world’s most profound thinkers–Charles Darwin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Paul Rand, Josephine Baker and Thomas J Watson. Fifteen artists collaborated with Watson—using insights only Watson could provide—to create an exhibition of portraits that told stories about these historical icons that had never been told before. 

Thousands of gallery guests were also invited to chat with Watson in the Cognitive Photo Booth, so by analyzing their answers to his questions, he could create personalized portraits in real time that reflect their true nature. 


The Cognitive Photo Booth: Watson On You

Can a machine know people better than they know themselves?
The Cognitive Photo Booth–a key attraction at the exhibition­– showed how Watson can reveal the person within. Watson analyzed gallery guests’ answers to his questions using his Speech to Text and Tone Analyzer APIs.  Each guest’s personality profile was then presented as custom, poster-sized portrait, in the form of a data visualization, printed in minutes.


We used Watson’s design language to create custom emojis for each personality trait.

Watson’s cognitive analysis of guests’ answers produced personality profiles. The trait percentages determined the distribution of the emojis used to create each portrait.


Marie Curie: Truth Shines

Watson discovered that despite her reputation as a cold scientist who loved her work above all, Curie actually cared more for her family. Her portrait featured typography to magnify the difference between Curie’s public and private personas: blue ink and rigid type for the media’s unkind depiction, red ink and handwritten script for her own words of affection to her family. The UV light makes the truth shine, by highlighting her words in red.


Nikola Tesla: The Artist Inside

Watson uncovered that the famed inventor was really an artist at heart. Tesla’s conflicted, dual personas–the scientist and the artist–served as inspiration for this portrait. The mirrored cube represents Tesla’s mind, while the inner electric grid speaks to his fame as a well-known scientist. The generative art that comes alive inside the cube represents Tesla’s lesser-known artistic side.


Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the World

In Roosevelt’s writings, Watson found associations with contemporary music of 2007-2008. The artists created her portrait with original music, including vocals of phrases from Roosevelt’s speeches and writings, as well as an audio sample from her 1941 Library of Congress speech. Accompanying the track is a video projection of her 3-D likeness, with animated phrases from her writings.


Paul Rand: Emotional Spellcheck

Watson’s analysis revealed that Rand displayed anger in his writings. Inspired by Rand’s playful designs, the artists created a work composed of customized emojis, reflecting the emotions Watson surfaced in Rand’s writings.


Thomas J. Watson: The Think Album

IBM Watson found relevancy between Thomas J. Watson’s speeches and the song lyrics from the 60s worldwide rock ‘n’ roll revolution. With this insight, the artist created a portrait of Thomas J. Watson combining seminal IBM iconography, with allusions to 1960s rock ‘n’ roll album art.


Charles Darwin: Evolution: The Game

Watson found that the concepts in Darwin’s books on evolution resemble those behind many puzzles and board games. This led to the idea of evolution as a game itself– one that, when played to the end, allows us to discover something new and see how we’re all connected. The artists also featured references to Darwin’s exploration of the Galápagos Islands.