Science has brought us wonderful things, like Netflix and a cure for smallpox. It has also brought us horrible things, like nuclear weapons and the knowledge that Pringles are bad for you.
Then there’s a third category of scientific advancement: things that have no clear purpose, but at least will manage to be really divisive.
Fitting squarely into this third category is an experiment by Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang, which uses software called VGG-Face to study photographs and determine whether or not a subject is gay.
WOW! What a breakthrough, sure to change the course of humanity! We might lose hundreds of thousands of lives to drought and famine every year, but dammit, we’re going to find out exactly which celebs are gay!
Unfortunately, the public’s actual reaction hasn’t been nearly as enthusiastic. As Oberlin College sociologist Greggor Mattson notes in a blog post, trying to predict sexuality from physical features has been going on since the 19th century, typically with dehumanizing effects. Guessing that a man is gay based on the width of his hips — which is what quack scientists tried to do back then — is little more than phrenology minus the hipster-approved diagrams. Computer facial analysis, argues Mattson, would continue this dubious tradition.
Making matters worse, the researchers sourced their “gay” and “straight” photographs from a dating website, which makes it likely that the photos were more sexualized than people are in a relaxed state. Well of course a bot is going to know a woman is straight if she’s making a pose that’s supposed to tell her potential date: “Yes, I’d like to hear about your Star Wars collectibles.”
In an era when people lash out at scientists for findings that are a) incontrovertible and b) crucially important — ahem, climate change — Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang are probably doing their colleagues no favors by stirring up so much controversy over an AI capability that, even if it were truly accurate, would be pretty useless.
Because whether someone else is straight, gay, or anywhere else on the spectrum of sexuality is none of your business, unless that person decides to tell you. And besides, when it comes to the perverse desire to know which celebs are gay, we already have a well-established technology: British tabloids.