An article in the New Yorker is causing a big gay uproar. Michal Kosinski, an organizational psychologist at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a colleague, Yilun Wang, reported the results of a study, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They culled tens of thousands of photos from an online-dating site, then used an off-the-shelf computer model to extract users’ facial characteristics. When shown two photos, one of a gay man and one of a straight man, the computer could distinguish between them 81% per cent of the time. For women it was 71%.
According to the article,
The study immediately drew fire from two leading L.G.B.T.Q. groups, the Human Rights Campaign and glaad, for “wrongfully suggesting that artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to detect sexual orientation.” They offered a list of complaints, which the researchers rebutted point by point. Yes, the study was in fact peer-reviewed. No, contrary to criticism, the study did not assume that there was no difference between a person’s sexual orientation and his or her sexual identity; some people might indeed identify as straight but act on same-sex attraction.
“We assumed that there was a correlation . . . in that people who said they were looking for partners of the same gender were homosexual,” Kosinski and Wang wrote.
True, the study consisted entirely of white faces, but only because the dating site had served up too few faces of color to provide for meaningful analysis. And that didn’t diminish the point they were making—that existing, easily obtainable technology could effectively out a sizable portion of society. To the extent that Kosinski and Wang had an agenda, it appeared to be on the side of their critics. As they wrote in the paper’s abstract,
“Given that companies and governments are increasingly using computer vision algorithms to detect people’s intimate traits, our findings expose a threat to the privacy and safety of gay men and women.”
The objections didn’t end there. Some scientists criticized the study on methodological grounds. To begin with, they argued, Kosinski and Wang had used a flawed data set. Besides all being white, the users of the dating site may have been telegraphing their sexual proclivities in ways that their peers in the general population did not.
(Among the paper’s more pilloried observations were that “heterosexual men and lesbians tended to wear baseball caps” and that “gay men were less likely to wear a beard.”)
Was the computer model picking up on facial characteristics that all gay people everywhere shared, or merely ones that a subset of American adults, groomed and dressed a particular way, shared?
But some people called bullshit. Literally.
Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, a pair of professors at the University of Washington, in Seattle, who run the blog Calling Bullshit, also took issue with Kosinski and Wang’s most ambitious conclusion—that their study provides “strong support” for the prenatal-hormone theory of sexuality, which predicts that exposure to testosterone in the womb shapes a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation in later life.
In response to Kosinki and Wang’s claim that, in their study,
“the faces of gay men were more feminine and the faces of lesbians were more masculine,”
Bergstrom and West wrote,
“we see little reason to suppose this is due to physiognomy rather than various aspects of self-presentation.”
So, don’t be surprised when your iPhone says to you one day,
“Who are you trying to fool, Tom. You like dudes!“
To read the full story go here.
(Photo, “Gay Robot”/Comedy Central ;via The New Yorker)