IEEE will no longer accept Playboy’s “Lenna” image for image processing research

A hot potato: Simply known as “Lenna,” the test image was scanned by Alexander Sawchuk at the University of Southern California’s Signal and Image Processing Institute in 1973. It’s been used in research papers about image processing since then, but now the time has finally come to retire this piece of fortuitous standard in digital beauty.

Lena Forsén, the Swedish model depicted in the notorious Lenna image, was shot by Dwight Hooker and appeared as the centerfold of the November 1972 issue of Playboy magazine. The Lenna image was cropped and then used by researchers because of its high contrast and detail level, appearing in several papers about image processing throughout the last three decades of the past century.

The IEEE Computer Society, which describes itself as the largest global community of computer scientists and engineers, recently sent an email to its members saying that it will not accept new research papers that include the Lenna image. The organization is committed to promoting an “inclusive and equitable” culture that welcomes all, the mail states, and the objectification of women is no longer an accepted practice.

After April 1, IEEE’s committee members and reviewers should look for the Lenna image in any new submitted research and ask authors to replace it. Lenna has been part of computing research history for a long time, but things have changed. Even Lena Forsén, who is now 73, expressed her intention to “retire” from her unlikely (and mostly unwilling) role in the tech industry.

In 2019, a promotional film named Losing Lena described Lenna as a remarkable representation of many of the computer industry’s shortcomings. The face “more studied than the Mona Lisa” contributed to the creation of the algorithm adopted by the still-ubiquitous JPEG image format, but it was ultimately part of a biased culture promoted by a “small subset of homogenous individuals.”

Forsén was seemingly amused when she discovered that her face and complexion were being used as a test subject for image research, and Playboy decided to overlook the copyright violation to exploit the phenomenon. In the Losing Lena documentary, Lena expresses her intention to “retire from tech” after she had been long retired from modeling.

Despite its widespread use, Lenna has always attracted significant criticism in the research community. Nature has banned the image since 2018, and the new stance expressed by the IEEE Computer Society will likely make this historical piece of digital content even more controversial (and undesirable) among experts.

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