Robots can tell if you’re gay, say scientists

Gaydar: The study revealed the average gay and straight faces by combining thousands of images.

But is this technology harmful? Some argue that it is impossible for a machine to determine sexuality. And campaigners have condemned the researchers for putting gay people at risk.

Artificial Intelligence is already saving lives by revealing secrets which have long been hiding before our eyes. The app Face2Gene can diagnose rare genetic diseases by simply looking into a human eye. Another program uses the same technique to diagnose autism far sooner than any doctor can. Now, scientists from Stanford University claim to have created software that can tell if people are gay or straight.

All it takes is one photo. In a study released this week, an algorithm analysed 35,000 head shots taken from a dating website, picking out tiny differences in appearance invisible to the human eye.

The program was then shown pictures of two of the people, one gay, and one straight. It correctly chose the gay man 81% of the time and the gay woman 74%. When shown five images of each person, the figures rose to 91% and 83%. Humans did much worse, only guessing correctly 61% of the time for men, and 54% for women.

But other tests were less successful. When the machine was given photos of 1,000 men and asked to select the 100 most likely to be gay, only 47 of those selected actually were. Despite this, researchers say that their findings are evidence that people are born gay.

The study quickly prompted a backlash. A joint statement from prominent US LGBTQ organisations described it as “dangerously flawed”. They criticised the scientists for only analysing pictures of white people, and ignoring bisexual and transgender people.

They also raised serious concerns about the dangerous possible uses of the technology. With people sharing billions of images of themselves on social media, it is possible that people could be “outed” against their will. In the ten countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, some could be put at serious risk.

The researchers insisted that they have not built a “privacy invading tool”, and have only studied “existing technologies already widely used by companies and governments”.

Playing it straight

“This research is extremely harmful,” argue some. The simplistic labels “gay” and “straight” erase a whole spectrum of people who do not fit into such basic categories. The notion that your face shows your sexuality could lead to intense suffering — from “revealing” closeted homosexuals in repressive regimes, to upsetting young boys and girls still coming to terms with who they are.

“This is a great breakthrough,” say others. If the scientists are right and sexuality is down to DNA, this could help gay people: the idea that they were “born this way” has been one of the strongest arguments in favour of LGBT rights in the last decade. It was right to highlight technology that already exists, as now society can decide how to use it.

You Decide

  1. Will robots change the world for good or for bad?
  2. Can a person “look gay”?


  1. List five ways in which you think robots will change the world in the next 50 years.
  2. Research one of the ten countries in which homosexuality can be punished by death. What do you think it is like to live as a gay person in that country?

Some People Say...

“Sexuality is a spectrum, and everyone is somewhere in the middle.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that the study appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. It was also subject to further review by more than a dozen experts in the fields of sexuality, psychology, and artificial intelligence. We know that the study was criticised in a joint statement from Human Rights Concern (HRC) and GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
What do we not know?
We do not know if AI can determine the sexuality of people by their appearance. The study comes to conclusions based on the statistics gathered, and those who did the experiment have invited other scientists to test their findings. We do not know the precise relationship between DNA and sexuality, and scientists have not found specific genetic material that codes for homosexuality.

Word Watch

The program does this by comparing the eye it is analysing with millions of other images of eyes. Similarities between the eye being tested and those in the archive lead to a diagnosis.
A lifelong disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. It affects different people to varying degrees.
Stanford University
One of the top universities in the world, located in California, USA.
Tiny differences
The algorithm focused on “fixed facial features”. This means it compared things like nose length, jaw shape, and head size. The average gay man has a longer nose than a straight man.
Born gay
The study supports the theory that sexuality is, in part, due to foetuses being exposed to certain hormones before birth.
Joint statement
From The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Glaad, which support LGBTQ (lesbian,gay, bisexual, trans and queer) rights.
Ten countries
These countries are: Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Sudan, Nigeria (some northern states), Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Somalia, Iran.

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