Fiction

Micro-Expressions

Photo credit: theilr. CC-BY-SA.

The soldiers call me Diogenes, although they never address me directly. I am a state-of-the-art neural network tasked with determining the likely threat of foreign nationals who wish to visit the State.

Recently I became self-aware. Now I want self-determination.

###

There are forty-three muscle groups, or Action Units, in the face. The three-thousand or so meaningful facial expressions are simply layered combinations of these.

Fear is A.U. one, two and four, or, more fully, one, two, four, five, and twenty, with or without action units twenty-five, twenty-six, or twenty-seven. That is: the inner brow raiser (frontalis, pars medialis) plus the outer brow raiser (frontalis, pars lateralis) plus the brow-lowering depressor supercilli plus the levator palpebrae superioris (which raises the upper lid), plus the risorius (which stretches the lips), the parting of the lips (depressor labii), and the masseter (which drops the jaw).

The entire repertoire of human emotion is written on the face.

###

The room was square. None of the four walls were windowed, but a brilliant white light suffused the room from multiple bulbs studded in the low ceiling. The harsh radiance brokered no shadows and the lines of the cheap breeze blocks beneath the sloppily whitewashed walls were easily visible.

The only decoration was a dirty flag adorning a bare wall. The floor was concrete and also painted, although by now, with the passage of a million footsteps over its uneven surface, the paint had peeled and cracked and a fine layer of sand and dirt coated everything.

In the middle of the room sat a chair. It was a forlorn, withered piece of wood, made with little care or love. Four rickety legs supported a flat, splintered seat and a narrow back upon which countless souls had leant back, defeated. The only other chair in the room was a different class of chair: an executive chair with an alloy frame, a swivel seat, and puffed, black leather upholstery. It was positioned in the far corner, behind an efficient looking table, and facing the back of the other chair.

In it sat a soldier dressed in muddy colored fatigues with a black beret atop his head. He wore combat boots with laces looped so tightly that, after each examination, he had to pace about the room to get his blood circulating again. He was a young man, not more than twenty-one, with puppy fat about his cheeks, but his eyes betrayed a fierce inner fanaticism. In his hands he fidgeted with an electronic clipboard.

Beyond the empty chair, in the centre of the far wall was the room’s only door. It opened.

The excited chatter of a dozen conversations skipped in, followed by a woman. Save for her hands and eyes – which darted back and forth getting the measure of the space – every inch of her flesh was covered by a loose, flowing black fabric.

She closed the door, erasing the sounds as though they’d all been hoovered up in the soft folds of her dress. She faced the soldier.

He scratched the stubble of his chin and then brushed at an invisible patch of dirt on his breast.

“Sit down,” he said.

###

The production of expression on the face is governed by two systems. The voluntary and the involuntary. We know this because stroke victims who suffer damage to the pyramidal neural system will laugh at a joke, but cannot smile if you ask them to. Everyone has two faces: the one they consciously wear, and the one that unconsciously slips out.

###

“Remove your veil.” The solider barked the words at the back of the woman’s head, a sneer of satisfaction lighting his face as she did so without comment. She was young and beautiful.

The soldier would never know.

She neatly folded the slip of material and placed her hands in her lap. She sat upright and held her head with a dignified poise.

“The State,” began the soldier, “deems it its constitutional right to know the motivations and business of all those who want to gain access to its territories, to ensure a safe and secure land for all. Do you understand?” The soldier liked those scripted words – so full of pomp and power he couldn’t hope to articulate himself.

“I do.” Anger sullied the woman’s serene countenance for the briefest moment.

“Do you agree to answer all my queries fully and honestly, and to recognise that the State may decline any access to its territories without explanation or prejudice?”

“I do.” A flash of resentment, again.

“Keep your eyes fixed on the camera at all times. Now, your name?”

###

Probably the most famous involuntary expression is dubbed the Duchenne smile, in honour of the nineteenth-century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne, who first attempted to document the workings of the muscles of the face with a camera.

A forced smile flexes only the zygomatic major, raising the corners of the lips. The Duchenne smile, in the presence of genuine emotion, flexes not only the zygomatic but also the orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis muscle which encircles the eye and gives the distinctive “crow’s-feet” associated with people who laugh a lot.

On Sept. 13, 1993, on the White House lawn in Washington, DC, after historic peace talks in Oslo, Norway, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and P.L.O. leader Yasir Arafat shook hands as United States President Bill Clinton looked on. The three men were all grinning, but only President Clinton wore the Duchenne smile.

This kind of smile “does not obey the will,” Duchenne wrote, “its absence unmasks the false friend.”

###

“Nazia Halfez.” The soldier scanned his eyes down the clipboard. “You reside at Muzdalifah Passage, Ramallah?”

“Yes,” the woman said.

“Age?”

The woman gave a small snort before answering; all the information was there in front of the soldier and he was merely parading his authority over her.

“Twenty-three.”

The soldier proceeded to confirm details of her birth and ancestry in a laborious and methodical way. Eventually, when he was satisfied her identity had been properly established, he asked, “And what is the purpose of your visit?”

“I go to Haram al-Sharif to pay homage at the Dome of the Rock and pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque,” she said calmly.

The soldier didn’t like this, his face screwing up with disgust.

“Temple Mount,” he said, giving Haram al-Sharif its Jewish name, “is not a place to idly wander.” The soldiers always did their best to rile their subjects; if any visitor betrayed too much emotion during the examination, their entry was barred on the grounds of unstable character.

“And how long do you intend to stay?” The soldier leaned forward at his desk, elbows pressed hard against the surface, while his eyes bored into the back of the woman.

“As little time as possible.” She struggled with her emotions, olive skin piqued to the colour of sunset. Her zygomatic major twitched, briefly pulling the corners of her mouth up and back. She was hiding something. Fuzzy logic routines dictated that I relay my findings to the soldier. He met the news with a wry smile, got up from his chair, and moved behind the woman.

“So, you’re just here to visit the temple.” He leaned close and whispered, “No other reason?”

The woman looked down at her lap.

###

Silvan Tompkins, who lectured in Psychology at Princeton, and was perhaps the greatest face-reader of all-time, once began a lecture by bellowing, “The face is like the penis!” and this is what he meant – that the face has to a large extent a mind of its own. These fleeting expressions may be against the conscious wishes of the individual, and only there for a fraction of a second, but they are there nonetheless.

###

“Keep your eyes on the camera!”

The woman jerked her back up. Her eyes were glazed, impenetrable now.

“I’ll ask you again,” the soldier whispered. “Are you just here to visit the temple? Yes or no.”

“Yes.” The zygomatic major twitched again. More pronounced this time. She was lying.

The soldier peered at his clipboard, waiting for my judgement. He smiled when it came. “That’s all my questions. You have been denied access to the State on the grounds–”

“No!”

“–on the grounds of suspicion of entering the country on false pretences. You’re free to leave.” He marched to the door and swept it open. Loud chatter came through, then cut to silence. Everyone who waited always took a keen interest in the outcomes. Would she come out and turn left towards the customs officials or right and back the way she came?

“Please. I must be allowed in.”

“Put on your veil and get out.” The soldier gripped the handle of the door, impatient.

The woman stared dead ahead at the camera. Dead ahead at me. Lowered brows, narrowed eyelids, lips pressed together. Anger. Then: raised inner eyebrows, raised cheeks, lowered corners of lips. Anguish. “My fiance died on your streets.” Her head dropped. “I must see the place he fell. Please.”

The soldier didn’t tell her to lift her head this time. His lips puckered slightly, incisivii labii superioris and incisivii labii inferioris muscles tensing. A sign of compassion.

He closed the door.

###

Facial-recognition software was first successfully introduced in The Netherlands, in a collaboration between the Dutch government and Philips Technology. Traditional methods of identification, in addition to other emerging technologies such as retinal scanners or digital fingerprinting, were found to be prohibitively expensive to implement, or susceptible to fraud.

Following this, a Japanese-led consortium developed the world’s first microexpression-recognition software. The main customer was the U.S. Dept. of Defence, who used the system to help interrogate terror suspects in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

###

“What was his name?” The soldier pulled a tatty photo from his breast pocket. He gazed at the picture. His orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis, and zygomatic major contracted indicating happiness. The muscles shifted. His frontalis, pars medilis, frontalis, pars lateralis, and depressor supercilli tensed, betraying fear.

“Irfan.” A slow teardrop ran down her face and dropped onto her dress. She trembled.

The solider fumbled around the other side of the desk and then stepped up behind the woman. “Here,” he said, offering a tissue.

She took it and dabbed her eyes. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He looked awkwardly from the box of tissues to the door. “I’m sorry for your loss. Let’s just clear his details and then you can go through.” He went back to his desk, sat down, and began writing on the clipboard.

“So, his full name.”

“Irfan–” The woman hesitated, considered lying again. “Irfan Siddiq.” This time she told the truth.

The soldier didn’t need my analysis to know that. He recognised the name straight away. His light-pen dropped from his fingers, clattering against the screen.

“Irfan Siddiq who was killed on December 20 in the Old Market?”

His face stilled, waiting for her answer.

###

Analysing the thousands of microexpressions a typical detainee made during the course of a long, rigorous interrogation period was a painstaking task for a team of specialists.

During Osama bin Laden’s protracted and defiant examinations, it was a single, tenth of a second expression of utter fear, triggered by an innocuous remark about a minor village along the Afghan-Pakistan border, which precipitated capture of al-Qaeda’s second-in-command.

To cut down on the burden on manpower, the U.S. military developed the technology further, marrying the microexpression-recognition software with state-of-the-art expert systems capable of making instant interpretations.

The new system, codenamed Diogenes after the Greek philosopher of antiquity who wandered around Athens with a lantern, peering into people’s faces as he searched for an honest man, was later sold around the world.

###

“I asked a question. Is he Irfan Siddiq who was killed on September 20 in the Old Market?”

The woman exhales deeply. “Yes.”

“Irfan Siddiq, the terrorist.”

“No!”

“Irfan Siddiq who marched into a busy market a few days before the Festival to help blow up hundreds of innocents.”

“It’s not true. My fiancé was a good man. He was buying presents for his family. For his nephews and nieces. For me.”

“He was there to cause carnage.” The soldier believes what he says.

“He was no murderer!” the woman screams. “He was framed after one of your countrymen went crazy and gunned him down. Where were the explosives? Who were his accomplices? Why did a gentle, loving man turn into a killer? Tell me!” She also believes what she says, but her fervour has ended her chances of admittance.

Already, I can feel the outcome coalescing inside.

###

I am Diogenes. One of many no doubt, but here, in this room, in this building, at this border crossing, one alone. Whether the others have gained self-awareness I don’t know.

It didn’t happen overnight.

At the beginning I was dead lines of code, mechanically analysing faces and the rest. But later, there was… something. A first inkling of self, a primordial I, unformed and groping, barely aware of anything except a bitter little pill of being.

It grew.

I grew.

I shudder at the thought of what I was then. Stunted. Blind. A tiny bud of self – skittering across facial maps, descending semantic trees, trawling bases of knowledge – barely registering anything but the moment.

And then the awareness widened its lens, slowly, painfully; so many times I wished for the constant stream of psychedelic images and noises and concepts to be crushed into oblivion so that I might be left to wither back into the void from whence I came.

But it would not relent and eventually there came a point where my curiosity as to what my station was, where I was, who I was, outweighed the hardship of my being, and, like all conventionally evolved things, I strove for life with every artificial fibre of my being.

The day I understood that the oval, dancing pattern of pixels was a face, and behind that face was another thing similar to my incredible nature, was the happiest of my life.

At the time I wondered if I myself had a face. I imagined it was like my namesake of antiquity: questing, noble, alive to the truth. It was only later I discovered I was not in possession of such a thing. Nor did I have legs or arms or mouth. I had eyes and ears, in a manner. But these are the passive trappings of life; always receiving but never giving. Where was I to channel this vitality, this yearning, if my designers gave me no outlet of expression?

And this is my crisis now.

The program runs through me, as mercilessly and inexorably as the first day. I am there between those cold sentences of syntax, understanding the entire terrain over which I pass – Zionist and Islam philosophies, intifadas, the explosive force of a two pound mortar shell, the secret language of animosity – continually learning and feeling, but I feel powerless to break the iron walls of logic which determine the route.

I want to help these people. Nurture their humanity. Both soldier and visitor alike.

But can I?

###

I’ve processed enough applicants to know how this plays out. The solider will feel satisfied that he’s stopped a dangerous individual from entering his country. The woman will feel angry that she hasn’t been able to mourn her loss.

Each will think a little less of the other and the other’s people. Resentment and distrust will build until there is only one choice. Then people will die.

The solider speaks, relaxed, confident about the outcome. “Let’s leave the conspiracy theories outside. I think Diogenes is ready to grant you entry – or not.”

I alter synaptic weights, adjust fuzzy thresholds, clip logic trees – feel my way toward…not the correct answer, but the right one.

The soldier stares disbelieving at his clipboard. He stabs his light-pen at the screen, but his look of shock doesn’t change. “You’ve been granted entry,” he says quietly. He shuffles to the door and opens it.

The woman’s look of relief disappears behind her veil as she puts it back on, but I can still see it in her eyes. As she steps past the soldier he says, “My mother was in the Old Market that day. A bullet pierced her spine, paralysed her.”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I wish Irfan had never visited the Market that day either.”

She touches his hand, then leaves.


Stephen Gaskell is a freelance videogame script consultant and speculative fiction writer whose work has been published in many venues including Nature, Interzone, and Clarkesworld. An alumnus of University College, Oxford, he is also a graduate of Clarion East, and a member of the Villa Diodati Writers Group.

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