psychologist’s “gaydar” research makes us uncomfortable

Michal Kosinski used artificial intelligence to detect sexual orientation. Let him explain why.

In September, Stanford researcher Michal Kosinski published a preprint of a paper that made an outlandish claim: The profile pictures we upload to social media and dating websites can be used to predict our sexual orientation.

Kosinski, a Polish psychologist who studies human behavior from the footprints we leave online, has a track record of eyebrow-raising results. In 2013, he co-authored a paper that found that people’s Facebook “likes” could be used to predict personal characteristics like personality traits (a finding that reportedly inspired the conservative data firm Cambridge Analytica).

For the new paper, Kosinski built a program with his co-author Yilun Wang using a common artificial intelligence program to scan more than 30,000 photos uploaded to an unnamed dating site. The software’s job? To figure out a pattern about what could distinguish a gay person’s face from a straight person’s.

When choosing between a pair of photos, the resulting program accurately identified a gay man 81 percent of the time and a gay woman 71 percent of the time. The researchers also asked humans to do the same task — and they fared worse, guessing correctly 54 to 61 percent of the time.

More controversially, Kosinski and Wang’s paper claimed that the program based its decision on differences in facial structure; that gay men’s faces were more feminine and lesbian women’s faces were more masculine. They suggested this finding was in line with the prenatal hormone theory of sexual orientation, which suggests our sexuality is, in part, determined by hormone exposure in the womb. This conclusion is hotly contested by some of their colleagues, who say the research is confounded by the fact that the photos were uploaded by the users themselves and not taken in a neutral lab setting. (Read a thorough critique of those conclusions here).

But even if the algorithm is just picking up on personal choices, the result feels unsettling, like the first stone on a path to a Black Mirror future.

LGBTQ rights groups decried the research, saying it’s based in pseudoscience and poses a danger to members of the LGBTQ community around the world. Other researchers in psychology decried it as physiognomy, the long-defunct pseudoscience of attributing personality traits to physical characteristics. The paper is expected to run in a February edition of Personality and Social Psychology.

Kosinski insists his intent was never to out anyone, but rather to warn us about the rapid extinction of privacy.

And sexual orientation, he argues, is a start. Many more aspects of our inner lives — like personality traits — may be encoded in our faces. This is also a controversial idea, which harks back to the pseudoscience of physiognomy.

When I spoke to Kosinski in November at his Stanford office, I was most interested in learning why he’s asking these controversial research questions, and whether his “warning” of a loss a privacy is actually just a blueprint to achieve it. He argues these technologies are already being used and have a huge potential for misuse.

Industries, governments, and even psychologists can mine the digital footprints we leave everywhere and learn things about ourselves we wouldn’t necessarily be willing to share. “Basically, going forward, there’s going to be no privacy whatsoever,” he says.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Source: vox.com

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