Beauty is in the AI of the beholder
Want to shatter your self-esteem in under five seconds? There’s an app for that! A startup called Qoves has developed an AI-powered beauty assessment tool that tells you how attractive you are. The free version spits out a list of your “predicted flaws” and explains what sort of surgical interventions and expensive serums are needed to “fix” you. If you want to pay for more of this nonsense you can get an Aesthetics Report – billed as the “perfect collection of scientific sources to become better educated on facial harmony” – that lists things like your “Cephalometric Averageness”. No doubt each report comes with a free pair of skull calipers!
After reading about this hellish product in the MIT Technology Review I obviously went on the website to try it. Alas, my quarantine face appears to have been too much for the tool, because when I uploaded a photo it crashed. (So, apparently, did my common sense: gifting dodgy startups your data is never advisable). Still, had I really been set on having a machine rate my face, I wouldn’t have had to look far for another option – there are an alarming number of these sort of beauty assessment algorithms online. Face++, a facial recognition platform developed by China’s Megvii Technology, for example, has a tool that gives you a “Beauty Score”. It also purports to tell you how attractive you are from both a male and female perspective. (Megvii, by the way, is a delightful company; it reportedly worked with Huawei to develop a “Uighur alarm” that would identify members of the persecuted ethnic minority and potentially flag them for police.)
How does a beauty scoring algorithm work? Good question; nobody really knows. Face++ won’t reveal the workings of its algorithm. Qoves’s tool, meanwhile, is trained on a dataset of hundreds of thousands of pictures scored manually by humans and extrapolates attractiveness from that. One thing we can say for certain about these sorts of tools is that they often reflect Eurocentric beauty biases; AKA they are racist as hell. 2016, for example, saw the world’s first international beauty contest judged entirely by algorithm. Guess what? Out of 44 winners, nearly all were white, a handful were Asian, and only one had dark skin.
It would be one thing if these algorithms simply reflected existing biases. The real problem is the insidious ways they reinforce them. You don’t have to upload your photo to one of these sites to be given a Beauty Score; you might already have unwittingly been assigned one. Qoves founder Shafee Hassan claimed to MIT Technology Review that beauty scoring is widespread; social media platforms use it to identify attractive faces and give them more attention. After a request from the media outlet, Instagram and Facebook denied using such algorithms. TikTok and Snapchat declined to comment on the record. Last year, however, it was revealed that TikTok moderators had been told to suppress videos from ugly, poor or disabled users. A content moderation memo demanded that videos were excluded from the For You feed if they featured users with “abnormal body shape (not limited to: dwarf, acromegaly)”, who are “chubby … obese or too thin” or who have “ugly facial looks or facial deformities”.
The problem in a nutshell? Biased attractiveness algorithms might influence what kind of content we see; thanks to recommendation algorithms we see even more of that content; our opinions about what is attractive become more entrenched. “Recommendation algorithms are actually changing what our preferences are,” one expert told MIT Technology Review. “When it comes to beauty, we are seeing much more of a narrowing than I would have expected.”
While this is disturbing enough, it’s part of a bigger problem. Technology seems to be making us all a lot more image-obsessed. Over the past few years doctors have reported a disturbing number of people asking for surgery that makes them look like they do in selfies treated with social media filters; the trend has been termed “Snapchat dysmorphia”. Remote working, and the endless hours staring at your own face while on video conference calls that it entails, has made things even worse. There’s been a “Zoom boom” in plastic surgery during the pandemic. British plastic surgeons have reported a 70% rise in requests for video consultations over 2020 and there’s been a big increase in demand for cosmetic surgery procedures from men. Overall, it’s a very ugly trend.
Female frogs are biologically protected from mansplaining
Frogs are really, really loud. They have these amphibian get-togethers where the noise levels are close to what you’d hear at a rock concert. A new study, however, has shown that nature came up with a handy fix for this; female frogs have lungs that are capable of muffling the ruckus and concentrating only on the sounds that interest them. It’s like being able to walk into a crowded bar, drown out all the noise, and zero in only on the voices of eligible mates. The Atlantic has everything you’ve ever wanted to know about amphibian acoustics and finding love in a noisy place here.
India’s top judge tells accused rapist to marry schoolgirl victim to avoid jail
Marital rape is not a crime in India, you see. An unbelievably infuriating story.
All the (rich) single ladies are buying up houses
While low-income women have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, wealthy women are doing just fine. Single women bought 8.7% more homes in the fourth quarter of 2020, as compared with the previous year. Single men saw a 4.6% increase in home buying during the same time period.
Egypt proposes bill further curtailing women’s rights
Egyptian women’s rights organizations have called for a review of a proposed law that would, to paraphrase one activist, take the country back 200 years – particularly when it comes to women’s autonomy around issues of marriage and divorce.
Monday is International Women’s Day!
The Guardian would like to hear about the women who have made a difference and inspired you during the last year.
The week in Cheesyarchy
Boris Johnson recently decided to tell the world that he has cut out “late night cheese”. Not sure why he thought anyone would care. Perhaps he noticed the uproar over the outrageous plans to set up a charity to redecorate the prime minister’s flat and thought providing a distraction would be a Gouda idea.