I know what I’m about to say is probably the most common cliché regarding technology, but every time new discoveries or new inventions are released, I just feel that we’re living in a science fiction novel. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has mixed emotions when it comes to technological advances, especially those thought to improve our everyday life, like new gadgets for our communication and entertainment. With the release of the new iPhone earlier in September, many were amazed by the new features it presented, including facial recognition. It’s amazing to have that technology available in our hands (well, if you can pay 1,000 USD for a cell phone), so people on social media and other publication media went nuts talking about this impressive technology. As good modern individuals, the jokes and memes didn’t take long to appear because we were amused by the alternative uses these images suggested, but somehow only a few got really concerned about the reaches and dangers this technology could represent.
This isn’t only a matter of this new phone by Apple, but a huge dilemma on the development of facial recognition. To start with, this isn’t new technology. Facial recognition has been around for a while, especially among military and government agencies, which already makes it scary enough. But the fact that it has become available for the broader public provides even more frightening implications. Many have questioned the ethical aspects of technology and the lack of regulation on this issue. But even worse, very little has been said about the misuse of this innovative invention. Earlier this year, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study made by Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang from the Stanford University, claiming that they developed an algorithm capable of determining an individual’s sexual orientation.
Before we go directly to the public concern about this study, let’s see how the study was conducted. They first created a database of physical features and expressions they thought were key to determine a person’s sexual orientation. Then they analyzed 35,000 photographs from profiles available in different dating apps (here’s the first problem; we’re dealing with a matter of consent) to try their algorithm. Based on the information they gathered, the researchers determined if their gadget had had a successful result. According to them, from these 35,000 photos, the device was right in 81% of men's photos, and 74% in women's.
What did they want to prove with this, besides creating a technology capable of exposing someone’s traits? They claim that the fact that sexual orientation can be determined by our facial features (if their assumption is correct) proves this isn’t a matter of choice, but that it has a biological origin. They stated that before birth we are exposed to a certain amount of hormones that can determine our sexual orientation. Moreover, according to the data they presented, they interpreted the results in terms of gender (male and female only) and found that female sexual orientation is more fluid than male.
If you’re like me, and many other people who have read about the study, you’ve probably cringed about some of the things mentioned above. To start with, we could question the validity of the study due to its lack of inclusivity. They focused only on determining if a person was gay, lesbian, or straight, ignoring bisexuality, transexuality, and other sexual orientations. Moreover, the profiles they used only belonged to white individuals, leaving people of color aside.
Finally, besides the lack of diversity to prove that, indeed, sexual orientation can be a genetic trait of our species, another issue that’s bothering many people is consent and violation of privacy. In other words, the misuse of this technology can lead to terrible crimes towards humanity they didn’t think about. We’ve seen conservative countries in which sexuality is so repressed that people who don't follow heteronormativity are punished. In places like Chechnya, gay people are still persecuted and even locked in concentration camps. If this technology ends up in the wrong hands, many would be endangered for mere suppositions, since the veracity of this invention is debatable. This would only encourage the persecution of minorities. So, are we ready to embrace these new technologies when there isn’t an ethical, moral, and regulated legislation? Where are our individual rights on this matter?
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