We need to be on guard against the prospect of governments scanning faces to determine sexuality, says author of Straight Jacket Matthew Todd
Researchers at Stanford University claimed to have found that computer algorithms could accurately predict the sexuality of people from photographs of their faces. Their artificial intelligence programme was able to detect, with surprising accuracy, from more than 300,000 dating website images, who was gay and who straight. The computers were more successful at getting the sexuality of men right 81% of the time from one picture, 91% after analysing five pictures. With women it was still impressive; 71% correct from analysing one picture and 81% after five.
This research has huge implications. No one knows for sure why some people are gay, straight, bisexual or trans, and debate rages. Writers such as feminist Julie Bindel argue passionately that lesbianism is a choice. For her, she says, it was a positive choice to reject patriarchal society in the most explicit way possible. This, however, would suggest that gay men are doing the reverse: consciously rejecting women for some apparently misogynistic reason.
Personally, my homosexuality is not a political choice whatsoever. Accepting it, coming out, fighting for rights very much was and is, but the fact itself is no more political than my need to eat or breathe. Anecdotally most gay men and lesbians, though not all, seem to believe they did not make a choice. (After all, the horrendous conversion therapy would not exist if it was). This study seems to back this up. The Stamford researchers, Michael Kosinski and Yilun Wang, say their system found subtle differences in facial structure: gay men tended to have slightly more feminine facial features and gay women slightly more masculine. There were grooming differences, too, that were more common among gay men but this was not responsible alone for the results.
Kosinki says their experiments werent motivated by a desire to prove what causes sexuality but to show the power of AI. But if this research is replicated it will provide strong evidence that sexual orientation (for many) is biologically innate and indeed, isnt just about sexuality. In other words, if you are gay or lesbian then there are other things different about us too. This has caused consternation from American LGBT groups such as Glaad and the HRC, who have denounced the research as flawed and junk science. It also does not take into account those who are bisexual or transgender.
Even more far reaching are the massive potential dangers that arise. Not all of the rest of the world is as accepting as Stanford. There are 72 countries where same-sex sexual activity is illegal, eight where it is punishable by death. We know from the brave work of journalists and activists that the government in Chechnya have rounded up gay and bisexual men, allegedly torturing and murdering many.
If speculation is correct then Apple will today unveil technology in its new iPhone that can scan facial features, recognising people and their facial expressions.
Put alongside Kosinki and Wangs study, this raises the nightmarish prospect of authoritarian governments scanning faces to determine peoples sexuality. If the technology was not 100% correct, large numbers of people could be wrongly identified in such a scenario, too.
The results in the Stanford study were not as straightforward as it may seem, though: the AI system was given a binary choice each time between two faces, knowing one was gay and one straight. In a real world sample where only a small number were gay, the system was less accurate. This doesnt undermine the evidence of biological difference because, as the Economist reports, when asked to select the 10 people it most expected to be gay it was correct in 9 out of 10 faces. But it does suggest identifying a small number out of a large group would be far harder.
Many people as I am are fascinated in the biological causes of sexuality. But the dangers of this specific research far outweigh any intellectual benefits. Experts like Elon Musk believe AI poses a huge existential threat to mankind and may be the cause of the third world war. Vladimir Putin recently warned whoever masters the technology first will rule the world. It clearly poses a huge threat to privacy, especially to sexual minorities.
As perverse as the logic is, hopefully the current inaccuracy of this technology may be enough to stop its most nefarious potential use. In the meantime governments, activists and the world must be on guard.
Matthew Todd is a former editor of Attitude magazine and the author of Straight Jacket: How to be gay and happy