Here we go again. The Guardian has a profile of a guy who claims to be able to tell your sexual orientation from a photograph. It’s all bullshit, reminiscent of that Faception nonsense.
But his audience would also have been intrigued by his work on the use of AI to detect psychological traits. Weeks after his trip to Moscow, Kosinski published a controversial paper in which he showed how face-analysing algorithms could distinguish between photographs of gay and straight people. As well as sexuality, he believes this technology could be used to detect emotions, IQ and even a predisposition to commit certain crimes. Kosinski has also used algorithms to distinguish between the faces of Republicans and Democrats, in an unpublished experiment he says was successful – although he admits the results can change “depending on whether I include beards or not”.
He’s a psychologist. Everyone who has taken a psychology course must have heard of Clever Hans, the counting horse. You would say a number to Clever Hans, and he would pound his hoof on the ground the right number of times. He must know how to count! But no, it turns out that Clever Hans just knew to watch his owner, who was the one who could count, and who would change his posture or signal his relief when the horse reached the desired number. The whole point of that story was a lesson in interpreting your observations: you may think the subject is doing one thing, but he or she is actually doing something entirely different.
For a wonderfully thorough take down of Kosinski, read this article which exposes the flaws in his work. Kosinski claims he’s detecting a biological difference, that physiognomy and genes are somehow connected to psychology and behavior, so you can scan one and get an accurate assessment of the other. But he’s really pulling a Clever Hans, making a faulty association between the variables he wants to link, and ignoring a host of other variables where the real connection is being made. And those other variables are all culture, not biology.
In summary, we have shown how the obvious differences between lesbian or gay and straight faces in selfies relate to grooming, presentation, and lifestyle — that is, differences in culture, not in facial structure. These differences include:
- Facial hair
- Selfie angle
- Amount of sun exposure.
We’ve demonstrated that just a handful of yes/no questions about these variables can do nearly as good a job at guessing orientation as supposedly sophisticated facial recognition AI. Further, the current generation of facial recognition remains sensitive to head pose and facial expression. Therefore — at least at this point — it’s hard to credit the notion that this AI is in some way superhuman at “outing” us based on subtle but unalterable details of our facial structure.
The Guardian article also points out another weird bias in Kosinski’s work.
This is where Kosinski’s work strays into biological determinism. While he does not deny the influence of social and environmental factors on our personalities, he plays them down. At times, what he says seems eerily reminiscent of Lombroso, who was critical of the idea that criminals had “free will”: they should be pitied rather than punished, the Italian argued, because – like monkeys, cats and cuckoos – they were “programmed to do harm”.
“I don’t believe in guilt, because I don’t believe in free will,” Kosinski tells me, explaining that a person’s thoughts and behaviour “are fully biological, because they originate in the biological computer that you have in your head”. On another occasion he tells me, “If you basically accept that we’re just computers, then computers are not guilty of crime. Computers can malfunction. But then you shouldn’t blame them for it.” The professor adds: “Very much like: you don’t, generally, blame dogs for misbehaving.”
I don’t believe in free will either, but for completely different reasons: I see it as a malformed question built on a foundation of dualism, a delusion that “you” are something independent of the physical, biological “you”. But I don’t flop down into the lazy thinking of biological determinism; that “I” am a construct of a meat computer does not imply that I am robotically fixed and incapable of change and growth, or cannot make decisions based on rational forethought or emotional desire. The real “I” is the whole, inseparable from glands and experience and calculation.
Likewise, biological determinism is bunk. Who we are is not simply a product of built-in genetic factors — genes respond to environment. It’s all one inseparable gemisch, and anyone who tries to argue that genes drive behavior is a fool. It’s always genes entangled in history and environment.