'Gay or straight' facial recognition experiment sparks LGBTQ row

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A facial recognition experiment which claims to detect whether a person is gay or straight by studying a single facial image has sparked a row between its creators and LGBTQ+ rights groups.

The study, published by two Stanford University researchers, caused controversy after they claimed to have developed the first artificial intelligence programme able to determine a person’s sexuality by facial features alone.

But two LGBTQ rights groups have called the research “dangerous and flawed”, saying it could “cause harm to LGBTQ people around the world”.

The scientists involved have hit back, saying these are “knee-jerk” reactions. 

For their study, the researchers trained an algorithm using the photos of more than 14,000 Americans taken from a dating website.

They used between one and five of each person’s pictures and took people’s sexuality as self-reported on the dating site.

In one test, the algorithm was able to distinguish between gay and heterosexual men 81 per cent of the time. For women this rate was lower, at 71 per cent. 

“Gay faces tended to be gender atypical,” the researchers said. “Gay men had narrower jaws and longer noses, while lesbians had larger jaws.”

But their software did not perform as well in other situations, including a test in which it was given photos of 70 gay men and 930 heterosexual men.

When asked to pick 100 men “most likely to be gay” it missed 23 of them.

The study has been criticised by LGBTQ campaigners for only sampling white people, its risk of inaccuracy and its division of human sexuality into two simple orientations: gay or straight. 

Jim Halloran, chief digital officer at Glaad, a media monitoring body, said: “This research isn’t science or news, but it’s a description of beauty standards on dating sites that ignores huge segments of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) community, including people of colour, transgender people, older individuals, and other LGBTQ people who don’t want to post photos on dating sites.

“At a time where minority groups are being targeted, these reckless findings could serve as weapon to harm both heterosexuals who are inaccurately outed, as well as gay and lesbian people who are in situations where coming out is dangerous.”

The Human Rights Campaign added that it had warned the university of its concerns months ago.

“Stanford should distance itself from such junk science rather than lending its name and credibility to research that is dangerously flawed and leaves the world – and this case, millions of people’s lives – worse and less safe than before,” said its director of research, Ashland Johnson.

But the two men behind the research accused their critics of “premature judgement”. 

“Our findings could be wrong… however, scientific findings can only be debunked by scientific data and replication, not by well-meaning lawyers and communication officers lacking scientific training,” they wrote in a response. 

“However, if our results are correct, Glaad and HRC representatives’ knee-jerk dismissal of the scientific findings puts at risk the very people for whom their organisations strive to advocate.”


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