Object Recognition

Many years ago, my grandmother gave me the small paper cards pictured above. Each one has various views of an aircraft printed on the front, and the characteristics of that aircraft printed on the back. She told me that whenever my grandfather was home on leave from his assignment as a navigator with RAF Ferry Command during the second world war, they would sit together late into the night at the kitchen table, and she would help him practice his aircraft recognition using these flash cards. It was vital for him to be able to identify aircraft and determine with certainty if they were friendly or not, based only on their appearance. This recognition task had to be performed reliably on aircraft at great distance, at oblique angles, and often seen only in silhouette.

Even without such specific training, the ability to recognize objects very rapidly and with only fragmentary information is something that the human brain is very good at. When navigating visually through any environment, whether natural or artificial, familiar or unfamiliar, the brain isolates hundreds of objects from the tiny two-dimensional images projected upside down on our retinas and compares them to a stored database of thousands more, determining matches in the blink of an eye. All this happens without conscious thought. This is possible because over the course of each of our lifetimes, using our powerful spatial memory, we each build up a reference library of object types. We develop the ability to create a mental construct of the world around us based on the constant identification of objects within our field of view, by comparing them to our own internal ‘reference library’.

As children, we do not seem to be born with this object library. It has to be created by discovery and observation. As a parent, I can attest to the fact that from birth children strive to explore every object they can get their hands on. They test everything for size, strength, texture, flavour, colour, smell, break-ability, throw-ability, jump-on ability, and any other metric you can think of. They are enthusiastically constructing their own personal reference library of object data all the time, using all of the information their five senses can provide. As we gain experience in the world, our ability to recognize objects improves, which surely must be good. The price for this is that perhaps we may become jaded, or only lazy, and rely more on our ability for categorization of things than on our five senses, and only navigate, rather than discover, the rich and infinitely variable world around us.

Image: Aircraft identification cards and RCAF insignia, circa 1942
Collection of the Author

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