AI can’t beat my composite sketches, says record-breaking police artist

The holder of the Guinness World Records mark for the composite sketch artist with the most positively identified criminals has expressed doubts that artificial intelligence programs will ever be able to perform her kind of work as well as the human hand can.

In an interview with the organization, known for curating a database of more than 40,000 world records, the retired Houston police department sketch artist Lois Gibson said she had repeatedly tried to entrust her job to computer programs designed to do it – yet she maintained that she had no success in doing so.

“I found out, scientifically. It’s a fact,” Gibson, 74, said in the interview. “I really did try – I mean, over years I took all the training on every program. I tried really hard.”

She said she realized over and again that she needed to redo sketches by hand that were originally produced by AI because they did not lead to a suspect being brought to justice. Gibson said she believed that was because accurate sketches rely on interpretation that only human artists are capable of producing.

“It just doesn’t even come close,” Gibson remarked, “because you have to be an artist like me.

“If you’re an artist like me and you try to do it on the computer, you go, ‘Why am I doing this when I can just draw this quicker and easier?’”

Gibson’s comments come as tech giants including Microsoft and Google are making multibillion-dollar investments in AI systems that they say inevitably will replace many tasks now performed by people.

But Gibson has the locus necessary to offer her opinion on the matter.

Lois Gibson. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

As of February, the sketches she had drawn during a career as a forensic artist that began in 1982 had helped authorities positively identify more than 1,300 suspected criminals, many of whom went on to be convicted, Guinness World Records said.

The organization said it had recognized her as the holder of the title for most criminals positively identified due to a single artist’s composites for about 20 years.

Gibson’s line of work was not one that she initially envisioned herself having. She once worked as a model.

Yet her professional trajectory changed permanently when she said, at the age of 21 in the early 1970s, an intruder burst into her apartment, strangled her unconscious and raped her.

“It was a torture rape,” Gibson told CNN in 2005. “I thought I was going to die.”

But, she recounted to Guinness more recently, “I survived … barely.”

Gibson did not report the attack to authorities out of what she described as a sense of fear and shame. “I thought, ‘Well, they’ll think I deserved it or asked for it,’” she also told CNN. “I couldn’t have hacked that.”

But she said she did seek to exact revenge for what she endured by moving to Texas to pursue a fine arts degree. After temporarily making a living sketching portraits for tourists, Gibson said she acquired the skills necessary to become a forensic artist and then convinced the Houston police department to give her a job.

She worked there until her retirement in 2021, helping the agency identify burglars, murderers and abusers with her charcoal pencil and easel.

Gibson said her own past allowed her to connect with crime victims whose descriptions guided her sketches. Part of her job was to calm and distract highly agitated victims through techniques that let them better access their memories and verbalize what their attackers looked like, which in turn enabled Gibson to draw more accurate forensic sketches.

According to Gibson, who also taught forensic art courses at the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety, helping catch criminals with her art left her completely “hooked” to a profession which only a few dozen people practice full-time in the US these days.

“You get addicted to catching criminals once you realize you can catch them with just a little bitty sketch that took less than an hour,” Gibson said.

Gibson said she has made it a point to preserve her Guinness World Records recognition because she figured it would bring an additional measure of “legitimacy” to her craft.

A leading contributor to cases of wrongful conviction overturned through DNA evidence is eyewitness misidentification, as the non-profit Innocence Project organization has previously noted. Composite sketches – along with photographic lineups – are often used to identify the suspects in those cases, which frequently involve investigators with few, if any, leads.

Gibson acknowledged that there are people who “don’t think the sketches are possibly effective”, but she said, “They are … and [the record has] helped me prove that.”

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