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Who got that cash?

Every year, an estimated 70,000 children go missing in the UK.

It may be years before they are found. But with each passing year, the task of finding them becomes more difficult because their appearances may have changed beyond recognition at the onset of puberty.

But what if, at the touch of a button, a computer could predict what a missing nine-year-old could look like at the age of 15?

That is the task Chris Solomon, a senior lecturer in physical sciences at Kent University, and Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at Dundee University, have set themselves.

The pair have been awarded a £178,000 grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to develop a computer program that predicts how missing youngsters are likely to age.

Not only could their research reunite thousands of families who have been separated for years, it could also speed up reunions.

Currently, it is the job of a forensic artist to illustrate how a missing child might look years after he or she was last seen. And a single sketch can take a week or more to complete.

Dr Solomon, whose three-year project started this month, said: "If successful, the system will be a major boost to the work of those locating missing children. It will provide accurate images rapidly and simply." Dr Solomon and Professor Black will study how children's faces change between the ages of five and nine and 12 and 15. They will then develop formulae that can be used by a computer to age a facial image.

Dr Solomon said: "Our approach is based on taking groups of people at a certain age, say ten years old, getting a picture of what they look like at 15, looking at how their siblings have aged and examining what their parents look like.

"Ultimately, we hope to scan in a picture of a missing child and put in the number of years it has been since the picture was taken and come out with a reasonably realistic image."

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