If you’re a parent wondering what your child will look like as an adult, now you don’t need to wonder anymore. Researchers at the University of Washington claim to have developed software that can accurately predict what a child will look like as an adult, up to the age of 80. The technique can even work from poorly lit photos, and could prove a big help in missing persons cases.

The research team has posted a paper on the new technique and will present its findings at the June IEEE Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference in Columbus, Ohio.

The shape and appearance of a baby’s face – and variety of expressions – often change drastically by adulthood, making it hard to model and predict that change. This technique leverages the average of thousands of faces of the same age and gender, then calculates the visual changes between groups as they age to apply those changes to a new person’s face.

More specifically, the software determines the average pixel arrangement from thousands of random Internet photos of faces in different age and gender brackets. An algorithm then finds correspondences between the averages from each bracket and calculates the average change in facial shape and appearance between ages. These changes are then applied to a new child’s photo to predict how she or he will appear for any subsequent age up to 80.

When the researchers set up an experiment using baby photos of 82 real people to test the software, they found that people matched digitally rendered images of the adults with the correct baby photos, as often as they connected them with the real-life photos.

Even more useful perhaps is the time in which this software can accomplish its task. Used on an ordinary computer, it generates images in about 30 seconds. Meanwhile, police still use artists to age missing people, carefully adding small details like wrinkles in a time-consuming process.

The software also allows for inconsistent lighting, poses and even facial expressions. A slightly turned head or a milk moustache is corrected before the face is stretched and manipulated and the years added.

The research team still hopes to develop the technology further, and will work on taking account of an individual’s ethnicity as well as adding features like wrinkles and changes to hair colour.