Schlagwort-Archive: science

Gay Composite Portraits?

Gay Composite Portraits? American Scientists Develop Algorithms That Trace Homosexuality in the Face (Raul Gschrey)

Composite screening is back again… For a study conducted at Stanford University, USA, two scientists, Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang, have developed an algorithm that aims to detect the sexual orientation of individuals in their facial appearance. The scientists draw on pictures from a dating website and claim that their big-data experiment reveals the homosexual orientation of men with a certainty of 81%, that of women with 74% by means of their special facial recognition and matching software. The deep neural networks (DNN) adopted by artificial intelligence (AI) would excel at recognizing patterns in large unstructured data in order to make predictions. The results of the AI, they argue, were more reliable than the human brain and revealed the limits of human perception. The authors conclude that sexual orientation might be pre-natal (probably inherited) and that this inner disposition is shown in the outer facial appearance. Here we are back again in Francis Galton’s world: In a revived version of prejudice-entrenched nineteenth-century scientific positivism.


Wang, Yilun; Kosinski, Michal: “Composite faces and the average facial landmarks built by averaging faces classified as most and least likely to be gay.” In: Wang, Yilun; Kosinski, Michal: “Deep Neural Networks Can Detect Sexual Orientation From Faces.” Forthcoming in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. []

And here the whole endeavor becomes most problematic, the scientist have chosen to publish composite portraits of male and female – gay and straight ‘faces’, showing “the average landmark locations and aggregate appearance of the faces classified as most and least likely to be gay.” And this visual data is in a second step used to classify the outer appearance of homosexual people. These remarks sound just like an excerpt from Lombroso’s or Galton’s work, who are not only known as father figures of the racist and ‘pseudo-scientific’ fields of criminal anthropology and eugenics, but also pioneered the technique of composite portraiture:

“Average landmark locations revealed that gay men had narrower jaws and longer noses, while lesbians had larger jaws. Composite faces suggest that gay men had larger foreheads than heterosexual men, while lesbians had smaller foreheads than heterosexual women.”[1]

In their article Kosinski and Wang mention the long problematic (scientific) history of physiognomy, but argue that, despite all taboos, scientific evidence suggested such a link. In the case of the visual signs for specific sexual orientations, they point to hormonal theories and genetic dispositions, but also social factors; or ‘nature and nurture’ as it is referred to in the report, an expression coined by Sir Francis Galton himself. And this inconsiderate approach to scientific theories, techniques and terminology of the past seems to characterize their study, such as the application of the term ‘race’ in relation to ethnic diversity.

As sort of a disclaimer, ethical issues and privacy concerns are discussed and the authors warn that government and private agencies were already involved with identifying face-based classifiers that are aimed at detecting intimate traits. While Kosinski and Wang argue that their findings could alert the public, rather than providing evidence against a minority group, the thoughtless and (historically) uncritical publication of a visually strong and potentially derogative composite portrait is highly questionable and might be dangerous. This is attested by a number of newspaper articles that present short and oversimplified summaries of the findings and often use the ‘gay composite’ as a visual anchor.[2] Some are thinking the approach further and warn of algorithms that could detect psychological disposition and political inclination in the face,[3] while other journalists focus on the criticism from LGBT groups.[4]

Recording Race: Huxley

Recording Race: T. H. Huxley’s Photographic Survey of the Races of the British Empire. Research visit to the „Thomas Henry Huxley Papers“, Imperial College London, April 2015.

It is certainly not easy to get an appointment at the archives of Imperial College London, where theThomas Henry Huxley Papers” are kept. This is the only archive I have encountered so far that would make a letter of intent, a project description, as well as a letter from my supervisor and university a prerequisite for consulting the materials. However, after settling all those issues, I am received cordially and a seat and research aids have been prepared for me.

Thomas Henry Huxley was a traveler, biologist and educational reformer, he is however best known as an important advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution. He shared a circle of friends with Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, with whom he exchanged letters that are kept in the archive. For instance in a letter dated October 16th, 1886, Francis Galton asks Huxley’s opinion on the biographies of Erasmus Darwin and Charles Darwin in relation to a proposal for a monument.

Races of the Empire

I am, however, particularly interested in his project of a visual survey of the ‘races’ of the British Empire, that was launched in 1869,  and for which Huxley developed a anthropometrical photographic standard for the depiction the human body. The plan originated in the Ethnological Society of which Huxley was president, and which sought to improve the quality of data in the field and establish a scientific classification of the ‘races’ of the British Empire.  The project however was administered by the Colonial Office in London that sent out an official request to the colonial administrations and forwarded the material, photographs and letters, to Huxley. Even though the material that he received was never used in his publications or in the work of the Ethnological Society, the portraits represent an important, if problematic, insight into the practices of scientific photographic depiction of the human body and in particular of colonial subjects. Recording Race: Huxley weiterlesen

Positivist to the Bone: Lombroso Museum

Research visit to the “Museo di anthropologica criminale”, the Lombroso Museum for Criminal Anthropology in Turin/Italy, August 2014.

The navigation system leads us into the busy city of Turin in northern Italy, past huge shopping malls and petrol stations, past the derelict illegal housings of migrants, along the river and through the scenic city centre and on to a quieter part of town where the museum occupies a historical university building. The collection was created by the Italian physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso in 1892 and has continuously existence ever since. It moved back to its former location the “Palazzo degli Instituto Anatomico” and was redone recently, explanations were added and multi-media installations guide the visitor, but the artefacts and the presentation are still in the vein of the famous advocate for positivist criminology.


The in the pompous hallway of the late nineteenth century building that was constructed as a “city of science” a video installation is installed below the ceiling. The inner side of the circular object shows portraits and specimen from the collection, a moving projector throws similar images onto this screen and creates temporary superimpositions of different faces. This introduction to visual material of the collection has striking similarities to the technique of composite photography that was developed as a mode of scientific visualisation by Lombroso’s British contemporary Francis Galton. The installation might also be an illustration of a scientific method, direct visual comparison.


In a dark, wooden furnished cinema-style anteroom a double-screen video installation introduces the time of Cesare Lombroso, the turn of the 19th century. Positivist to the Bone: Lombroso Museum weiterlesen

“150 Jahre Kompositfotografie: Zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunst“

Auf Einladung des Instituts für Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung bin ich mit einem öffentlichen Vortrag “150 Jahre Kompositfotografie: Zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunst“ am 20.06.3013 an der Universität Wien zu Gast.

///On 20.06.2013 12.00 I will be giving a public lecture entitled “150 Jahre Kompositfotografie: Zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunst“ at the Institute for Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna.