September 13, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, September 13, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll consider research claiming that sexual orientation can be revealed by a computer. We’ll look at the threat of artificial intelligence. We’ll see the Utah Supreme Court consider whether two men can have a biological child and if the word mother is thus unconstitutional. And we’ll ask ourselves if we are richer than we think we are.
Research finding that sexual orientation can be revealed by a computer highlights dangers of Artificial Intelligence
That brave new world we’ve been hearing about for decades is now taking shape all around us and ominously so. One of the most ominous signs recently is a headline story from London, a newspaper article in the Guardian about research undertaken in the United States at Stanford University in California. The headline of the article gets right to the question,
“Why, exactly, would anyone want to use AI to decide whether I’m gay or straight?”Show Full Transcript
The article’s by Matthew Todd, and he’s writing about the research undertaken at Stanford whereby researchers now claim,
“to have found that computer algorithms could accurately predict the sexuality of people from photographs of their faces.”
We were told that artificial intelligence programs are able to detect with surprising accuracy from more than 300,000 dating website images who is gay and who is straight. As Todd goes on to tell us the tail,
“The computers were more successful at getting the sexuality of men right – 81% of the time from one picture, 91% after analysing five pictures. With women,” after five pictures it was about 81%.
In a statement that can only be described as a massive understatement. Matthew Todd then says,
“This research has huge implications.”
Well of course it does. We’re talking here about a claim made by researchers at Stanford University, one of the most respected universities in the world and a university particularly known for its advances in technology and technological sciences. We’re talking about a claim made by researchers at Stanford that they have developed a set of computer algorithms that can without even the knowledge of the persons involved detect their sexual orientation. Now here it should be obvious that we’re standing at the intersection of just about every major controversial question of our times. We’re talking here about freedom. We’re talking about personal privacy. We are talking about technology, the ominous threat of artificial intelligence. We’re talking about personal identity, and we’re talking about sexual orientation. That line that this research has huge implications. That’s the kind of sentence that simply points to the fact that the implications are so massive no single news article could possibly take them all into consideration.
And Matthew Todd jumps right into the controversy with stating in the very next sentence,
“No one knows for sure why some people are gay, straight, bisexual or trans, and debate rages.”
Well, now let’s just pause for a moment because we’ve been told for over a decade, indeed for the better part of 20 to 25 years, that there is settled science that tells us that sexual orientation is innate in some sense. We’re told to some extent that the cause of sexual orientation is biological, and there was a clear agenda behind those arguments. The arguments that sexual orientation in terms of same-sex attraction is natural. With the obvious implication being, if it’s natural, it can’t be wrong. It can’t be sinful. Of course, there are problems with even that in terms of the biblical worldview that reminds us not only of the goodness of creation, but also the effects of sin. But furthermore the big story here is that we’re now being told that the debate rages on. The debate we were told was over. And that debate was over, we were told, conveniently in time for those arguments to be presented as science when arguments were made before the United States Supreme Court in a pair of decisions that eventually legalized same-sex marriage.
On The Briefing we have looked at the fact that arguments made by transgender activists run into direct collision with some of the arguments made by gay rights activist, especially in the 1980s and 90s, concerning the fixed nature of sexual orientation. That shows up in this article where Todd tells us that,
“Writers such as feminist Julie Bindel argue passionately that lesbianism is a choice. For her, she says, it was a ‘positive choice’ to reject patriarchal society in the most explicit way possible.’
We have to assume that that’s an honest statement made by this woman, but it also points to what is an increasing distance between gay men and women on the question of sexual orientation. There has been for some time now the category of hasbians among women who once identified themselves as lesbians, but no more, in the past tense hasbians. In what’s declared as the new orthodoxy, the new presumably settled science, not only on sexual orientation but on gender identity, we’re increasingly told that not only is it not fixed it is endlessly fluid. The inherent contradiction between those two claims is made clear in this article and that’s not even the main point. That contradiction comes in the fact that if it is possible for a computer algorithm to determine based on facial characteristics that someone is either gay or straight, well again, that flies in the face of the idea that this is endlessly fluid.
Now let’s follow the argument made in the Guardian closely. In one of the following paragraphs we are told that,
“American LGBT groups such as Glaad and the HRC, who have denounced the research as flawed and junk science.”
Now why? Because they don’t respect the scientific research done at Stanford University? No they’ve denounced it because it is extremely dangerous in their view that this could be claimed and considered credible. And that’s made clear in the next paragraph where we read,
“raises the nightmarish prospect of authoritarian governments scanning faces to determine people’s sexuality.”
The next sentence,
“If the technology was not 100% correct, large numbers of people could be wrongly identified in such a scenario, too.”
Now that’s actually mixing two hugely significant moral issues, and both of them arise with the possibility that artificial intelligence could identify who is supposedly gay and who is supposedly straight, The first issue is that yes authoritarian governments would be able to scan faces to determine person’s sexuality. That’s a clear moral challenge. It’s a problem to anyone because for one thing this facial recognition software would say nothing about sexual behavior only what is claimed to be about sexual orientation. But next we are told that if the technology were not 100% correct large numbers of people could be wrongly identified. Those are two different issues. Of course, what we’re looking at here is the fact that no one knows where the entire technology of artificial intelligence is going. But this article, which out of the blue raises the issue of facial recognition technology and sexual orientation, is just a very small part of the entire complex of issues that will inevitably arise with what’s called artificial intelligence.
Derek Hawkins reported yesterday on the same story for the Washington Post. He said,
“In the wrong hands, some argue, such data could be deployed for a range of nefarious purposes, including spying and suppressing certain groups.”
I think there’s no way around this particular warning. Just exactly what concerns Derek Hawkins in this article is not only something that might happen if this technology is available you can be assured that it will happen. Someone will use this technology for nefarious purposes. Furthermore, in what appears to be the first major media mention of this research in the Economist of London, the article ends by quoting Alessandro Acquisti of Carnegie Mellon University. According to the Economist he has,
“has shown that an individual’s social security number can be discovered using face recognition and online information” by searching the World Wide Web.
The article concludes,
“For those with secrets to keep, all this is bad news.”
Now that would honestly seem to include just about everyone. Because even those who morally speaking have nothing to hide do not necessarily want all of their lives to be lived out publicly in terms of artificial intelligence, in terms of a computer algorithm and in terms of the World Wide Web and the larger digital universe. One of the researchers at Stanford University warned of the dangers of this very kind of technology warning policymakers, we are told, of the power of machine vision. The comment goes on to say that,
“further erosion of privacy ‘inevitable’; the dangers must be understood”
The response to news reports about the researchers has also been very revealing. The Washington Post cites Ashland Johnson, director of public education and research for the Human Rights Campaign, again that’s a major LGBT advocacy group. She said,
“Imagine for a moment the potential consequences if this flawed research were used to support a brutal regime’s efforts to identify and/or persecute people they believed to be gay.”
She went on to say,
“Stanford should distance itself from such junk science.”
This points to the limitations of the word junk because it’s not at all clear that this is junk science. It is clear that it is both technologically and morally dangerous. But even if it’s the Human Rights Campaign that’s upset on behalf of the LGBT community today about this research, we need to notice that the circle of that concern is going to grow until it includes almost everyone. Because if a computer algorithm in artificial intelligence can be deployed to identify persons in screen on the basis supposedly of sexual orientation, that technology could certainly be applied to many other dimensions of identity and behavior, including virtually every single human being. As I said in the beginning of the story, this particular research brings together just about every major controversy of recent years into one huge worldview equation. If this research had come out of some peripheral institution, it wouldn’t be such a concern, but it has come with the name of Stanford University attached to the research. That tells us not only that this research is therefore credible it is also a credible threat.
Is a Utah judge preventing two men from having a biological child, or is it biology itself?
Next we shift to the state of Utah. A really interesting story telling us that a Utah couple yesterday went to that state Supreme Court over a law that prevents married gay men from,
“having biological children through surrogacy.”
One of the things we’ve been tracking over the last several years is how the very expression of having children has been necessarily transformed in the wake of the sexual revolution and in particular in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage. Having children throughout virtually all of human history, stretching back now millennia, has been a very clear reference to a husband and a wife, a man and a woman, eventually by human reproduction producing a child. But now as this story in the Salt Lake City Tribune makes clear “having biological children” that very phrase is now to be extended to same-sex couples and in particular to gay men who achieve some form of human reproduction by means of surrogacy.
But the article is actually even more explosive than the headline indicates. Jennifer Dobner is the reporter on the story. She starts out by writing that,
“Jon and Noel started talking about having a family not long after they married in 2013. An author and a professor who have been together more than a decade,” here are the crucial words, “the couple considered adoption, but settled on surrogacy out of a strong desire to have a biological child.”
Now the issues are not really very helpfully clarified in this article where the kind of language is used of two gay men having a biological child as if it makes sense, but we do need to clarify these issues in the first place. Even with the intervention of a so-called surrogate mother, we need to note that there is still no way that two men can in any sense have a biological child. At the most even with a surrogate mother, it could only be one of the men who could actually be a biological father to the child. That’s not made clear in the article, but what is made clear is why this case has ended up in court. It is because Utah’s state law limits surrogacy, the use of a woman who is hired as a so-called gestational carriers, is limited to couples in the state who provide medical evidence that the intended mother is medically unable to carry a child.
The confusing language is used over and over again. In another sentence we are told the couple is asking the Utah Supreme Court to declare a portion of the state’s gestational surrogacy law unconstitutional,
“because it deprives gay men the right to have biological children through surrogacy.”
Taken at face value, even without taking into consideration the legality of same-sex marriage, the reality is that the barrier to two men having biological children is actually biological. But the issue of same-sex marriage looms large over this article, not only because these two men are considered to be legally married, but because the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage provides the constitutional argument in the pretext for why these two men have arrived at the Utah Supreme Court. In the explicit arguments made by this couple in terms of their challenge to Utah state law, they explicitly say that use of terms like mother and father is now unconstitutional because it is inherently discriminatory. And here again we simply have to clarify a matter of biology, which of course for Christians is never merely biology it’s also theology. That clarification is this: at this point at least in terms of every single human experience that is of every single human being genetically at the very least there is both a biological mother and a father, period, without exception.
The Utah Supreme Court may eventually rule that you do not have to have a mother and a father and that it’s unconstitutional even to use that language. The Utah Supreme Court just might rule that two men have a constitutional right to have a biological child even using that language, but they really can’t overcome biology. If nothing else, this story added to the previous story about artificial intelligence and sexual orientations tells us that the technological revolution and the moral revolution have over the course of the last several decades moved in concert with one another. In both of these cases the bottom line is that what we’re witnessing is the inevitable outcome of the very arguments that gay-rights activists put into motion when they were making their arguments for the normalization of sexual behavior and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
The Wall Street Journal asks if we are we richer than we think we are
Finally I turn to an economic matter. And again for Christians, it’s never merely economic. The author of the article is Martin Feldstein. He’s a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan. He’s now a professor at Harvard University. The title of his article,
“We’re Richer Than We Realize”
He begins by saying the,
“Government statistics paint an excessively grim picture of what is happening to real wages and the growth of real national income.” He says, “Although most households’ take-home cash has been rising very slowly for decades, their standard of living is increasing more rapidly because those wages can now buy new and better products at little or no extra cost.”
He goes on to summarize,
“The government’s measure of real incomes gives too little weight to this increase in what take-home pay can buy.”
Why is this important from a worldview perspective? It’s because in this case the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers is reminding us that living standards can go up even if wages do not. How? Well just consider how many technologies we now all have at our disposal either free or at a fraction of what they cost just a few years ago. But it’s not just technology that’s covered in terms of this increase in a standard of living. It’s also access to other goods and services, such as the fact that over time the net cost of pharmaceuticals tends to go down precipitously. This is especially true when generic drugs come out. One of the key examples of this is the fact that most Americans can now afford Statin drugs, which were reserved for only the very wealthy just a matter of years ago.
This is a helpful economic analysis, but the Christian analysis has to take this further because it’s a reminder to us that many of the goods that add to human flourishing, human happiness, human joy, even what might be defined as our standard of living, are goods they cannot be reduced to anything with a dollar sign. Christians know that the Bible actually has a great deal to say about true riches. Something more authoritative even than that news that comes from the Council of Economic Advisers.