An AI gaydar? What were they thinking of?

Several newspapers recently reported about an AI program developed at Stanford University that claims to predict sexual orientation from portrait photographs. Is it any good? Apparently it has better hunches than humans, but it still produces a fair amount of false positives. The designers claim 91 percent accuracy once test subjects are more outspokenly gay. What’s that supposed to mean? Is the gold standard a 1978 Freddy Mercury in his leotard singing Good old fashioned lover boy?

There’s no knowing what will be possible with AI and how deeply we will allow it to erode our privacy. Imagine that every car comes equipped with an AI that can tell from facial expressions and other markers whether you have taken alcohol, (recreative) drugs or suffer from lack of sleep and can hence make a good guess at your fitness for driving. Is that a good idea? Taking alcohol is legal, but driving drunk isn’t. Your fitness for driving is a public concern, provided the system is accurate enough not to bar elderly drivers with sagging eyelids who are otherwise hale. If we want to make the word a better place through AI let’s expend our efforts on that, until the self driving car arrives.

Reporters took care to highlight the flawed nature of the technology at its current stage, as if that would make it less dubious. Software like this should not exist in the first place. Your sexual orientation is your private affair. I have no business knowing it unless you choose to share it. Needless to say this not the case in most countries.

I’m sure it was an interesting and fun research project and yielded some useful insights. But they should have kept the insights and threw away the actual program. What the hell were they thinking of? In many countries being gay isn’t anywhere near as carefree as in the bubble of Californian academia. As a white heterosexual Dutch man I belong to an extremely privileged minority and it is easy to get complacent and forget that global attitudes range from grudging acceptance – don’t ask, don’t tell – to torture and murder. Even in my own country violence towards gay men has got a lot worse compared to twenty years ago.

In the most suppressive countries men – women too, but especially men – must either go to great lengths to kill their true nature at great psychological cost, or simply risk their lives. They become masters of disguise, but you cannot disguise the very subtle facial features resulting from your genes. The AI is still not very good at this, but that is only a matter of time once a government decides to throw some money and talent at it. There’s no lack of programming talent and homophobia in Russia. Meanwhile no suppressive state is going to wait until its robot gaydar is 99,99 percent accurate. Hell no, they will use it to weed out every effeminate looking job applicants as soon as they can. And that’s only the beginning.

The fact that a technology is flawed doesn’t mean it won’t be adopted. Voice recognition is still pretty bad: Siri didn’t understand me for several days when I had a bad cold. AI provides fantastic opportunitiesAI, for example scanning x-rays to detect fatal diseases. Homosexuality is not a disease. It has taken the free West centuries to come round to that notion and we shouldn’t invent tools to help spread the opposite view.