Artificial Intelligence is now replacing... gaydar

Someday we will come across a story of how Artificial Intelligence is being used for completely benign purposes which improve the life of mankind and don’t scare the crap out of all of us. But, my friends, today is not that day.

At the Washington Post, JD Schramm brings us a cautionary tale of how facial recognition software is being paired with other analysis programs and may soon be used to reveal all sorts of interesting attributes about you. The big ticket, headline item on that list is that the computers will be able to replace gaydar, the legendary ability to tell someone’s sexual orientation simply by looking at them. If you’re finding yourself totally confused about now, join the club.

This may soon change — and possibly without the consent, or even the knowledge, of gays and lesbians. Researchers Kosinski and Wang report that advances in facial recognition programs make it possible for a computer to distinguish between photographs of gay and straight men in 81 percent of cases and between straight women and lesbians in 71 percent. When presented with five images of the same person, this accuracy increased to 91 percent and 83 percent, respectively. By comparison, human judges were right only 61 percent of the time for men and 54 percent for women…

The explosive growth of public and private surveillance camera installations over the past several years means that our image is captured all the time, often without our knowledge. In recent months, we’ve learned of breaches of personal data at the major credit reporting agencies, Yahoo and our own university. So much of our lives exist in data files held on servers more vulnerable than we like to believe. It should come as no shock that others could piece together anyone’s sexual identity (or a compelling case for one) from a variety of sources.

Schramm is referring to this study from Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang in case you want to read the entire thing.

I may just be a simple country bumpkin who grew up on a farm, but there’s a lot of material here which was completely new to me. Sure, I’ve had friends talk to me about gaydar and seen references in the movies and on television. But I always thought it was at least partly a joke and more a sense of intuition than anything else. Since when do people “look gay” based solely on their physical characteristics? And these markers are so clearly defined that with five pictures of a guy they can achieve a more than 90% accuracy rate in predicting their sexual orientation?

Perhaps more to the point, why would anyone be messing around with this sort of algorithm and tying it into cameras and facial recognition software in the first place? I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that would make this illegal, at least providing the cameras were only filming in public places, but it’s certainly disquieting. If you can’t immediately understand the problem, go back and read this article again, but replace the words “gay” and “lesbian” with “Jewish.”

Ah… I bet it’s starting to make sense now.

So we’re going to have computer systems so smart that they will be able to check up on everyone going in and out of public buildings or stopping by the ATM and not only identify who they are but tag them as being straight or gay. When you add in the new robocops that will soon be patrolling the streets (who will no doubt also be tied into these systems in addition to being autonomous) you’ve got a recipe for a real party going on.

I’m once again left feeling somewhat relieved that I probably won’t live long enough to see the entirety of this brave new world come to fruition. As for you younger folks… best of luck. And try not to look too gay – or Jewish – when you’re outside. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)