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Last week, The Economist published a story around Stanford Graduate School of Business researchers Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang’s claims that they had built artificial intelligence that could tell if we are gay or straight based on a few images of our faces. It seemed that Kosinski, an assistant professor at Stanford’s graduate business school who had previously gained some notoriety for establishing that AI could predict someone’s personality based on 50 Facebook Likes, had done it again; he’d brought some uncomfortable truth about technology to bear.
The study, which is slated to be published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, drew plenty of skepticism. It came from those who follow AI research, as well as from LGBTQ groups such as Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAAD).
Kosinski asserted in an interview with Quartz that regardless of the methods of his paper, his research was in service of gay and lesbian people that he sees under siege in modern society. By showing that it’s possible, Kosinski wants to sound the alarm bells for others to take privacy-infringing AI seriously. He says his work stands on the shoulders of research happening for decades—he’s not reinventing anything, just translating known differences about gay and straight people through new technology.
“This is the lamest algorithm you can use, trained on a small sample with small resolution with off-the-shelf tools that are actually not made for what we are asking them to do,” Kosinski said. He’s in an undeniably tough place: Defending the validity of his work because he’s trying to be taken seriously, while implying that his methodology isn’t even a good way to go about this research.
Essentially, Kosinski built a bomb to prove to the world he could. But unlike a nuke, the fundamental architecture of today’s best AI makes the margin between success and failure fuzzy and unknowable, and at the end of the day accuracy doesn’t matter if some autocrat likes the idea and takes it. But understanding why experts say that this particular instance is flawed can help us more fully appreciate the implications of this technology.
The flash of light you saw in the sky was not a UFO. Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus.