I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: artificial intelligence (AI) is already on its way to altering every little aspect of our lives—even the ones we never ever asked it to come close to. Forget about AI art and robots delivering sermons, AI now wants to infiltrate the world of dating, to help you find out exactly who you find attractive.
Researchers from the University of Helsinki and the University of Copenhagen have managed to teach AI what faces an individual person finds attractive, and how to generate artificial portraits in response. The study, titled Brain-computer interface for generating personally attractive images, was conducted on 30 volunteers who agreed to having the electrical activity in their brain monitored while they looked at artificial portraits created by a generative adversarial neural network (GAN), pulled together from thousands of images of real celebrities. Think ThisCatDoesNotExist.com, only with hot (but fake) contestants.
Speaking to Neuroscience News, senior researcher at the University of Helsinki Michiel Spapé further explained, “It worked a bit like the dating app Tinder. The participants ‘swiped right’ when coming across an attractive face. Here, however, they did not have to do anything but look at the images. We measured their immediate brain response to the images.”
Once that was done, the data from the readings was then analysed using machine learning techniques, generating a network that helped create new portraits based on a person’s individual preferences. Both the AI model interpreting the volunteers’ brain responses and the generative neural network modelling the face images played a crucial role in this experiment. Together, they produced an entirely new face image by combining what a particular person finds attractive.
The new images produced were then found to match the subjects’ preferences with an accuracy of 80 per cent. Now, before you get too excited about what this could mean for the future of dating apps, I should note that what this specifically highlights might turn sour, real quick.
After all, the study could easily expose unconscious biases and stereotypes most people hold (be that knowingly or not). And we’ve come to learn the hard way—attractiveness is a far more challenging subject than simply defining concrete physical traits. As Spapé explains, attractiveness is “associated with cultural and psychological factors that likely play unconscious roles in our individual preferences. Indeed, we often find it very hard to explain what it is exactly that makes something, or someone, beautiful: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Succeeding in assessing attractiveness is especially significant, as this is such a poignant, psychological property of the stimuli. By bringing in brain responses to the mix, it shows it is possible to detect and generate images based on psychological properties, like personal taste.
What does it say about us and the way we perceive attractiveness? Well, although we can all instantaneously recognise a face as ‘attractive’, it is much harder for us to explain what exactly defines our personal attraction. This suggests that attraction depends on a complex mix of culturally and individually defined features. And now, GANs have learnt to mimic these complex data distributions without even having to ask the question we all ask ourselves: why is my type my type? In other words, this little study just proved that AI is not to be slept on.
In early September, Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, revealed its new priest—a robot named Mindar. Made of aluminium and silicone, Mindar was designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. In a country where religion is on the decline, this $1 million robot priest is a futuristic attempt at rekindling people’s faith. Is merging AI with religion a good idea? Could it change religion as we know it?
Religion has always been a sensitive topic, while AI has stirred its fair share of controversy recently. Combining the two together by incorporating robotics in religion sounds like an idea with great potential to some, and like a very dangerous game to others. When it was first revealed in Japan, Mindar was compared to Frankenstein’s monster. And yet, people like Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward, were positive about it. “This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving.(…) With AI we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism,” declared Goto when Mindar was revealed.
At the moment, Mindar the robot priest is not AI-powered; it simply recites the same sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But its creators revealed that they’re working on giving it machine-learning capabilities that would enable Mindar to give advice to worshippers’ spiritual and ethical problems. As crazy as it sounds, Mindar is not the first example of robots and animated objects getting involved in religion.
Screen Shot spoke to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford, who wrote Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Mayor told us about the many links between religion and robots from ancient Greece to today, and her opinion on robot priests like Mindar. “Religious automatons were intended to evoke awe and display power in antiquity. We should be aware that similar motives could underlie using AI and robots today,” Mayor says.
When talking about the possibility of AI being implemented in religion, Mayor poses the questions that everyone should be asking themselves: “How can one trust that the machine learning and algorithms would always be beneficial to the users and not to the makers and deployers of robot priests? Could AI distinguish between immoral acts and moral values? Could AI discern motives and intentions and recognise sincere remorse, experience empathy, or truly embody the human qualities of mercy and forgiveness?” The doubts and uncertainty that surround this technology explain why people feel uncomfortable about the prospect. Some religions, however, might be better fitted than others, explains Mayor, “To Buddhists it doesn’t matter whether the force turning the wheel has consciousness or not. Religions that value internal reflection, intentional heartfelt prayer, spiritual guidance based on experience and empathy, and ethical decision making in complex social situations don’t seem particularly compatible with robots and AI.”
Another example of robots being used in religion is Sanctified Theomorphic Operator (SanTo), a figurine shaped like a Catholic saint. Created by roboticist Gabriele Trovato, SanTo answers people’s worry with verses from the Bible, specifically providing comfort and assistance to the elderly. This shows that certain positive potential that AI could bring to religion can’t be completely ignored—robots can perform religious rituals when human priests can’t, and hey can reach more worshippers.
The negative ramifications, however, seem to outnumber the positive ones. Are we willing to alter religion, a topic that has created so much chaos, and still does? By giving these robots AI machine-learning abilities, we would give them the power to tell us how to feel, how to ‘repent’, and what to do. The ethical and spiritual responses from those religious robots will need to be carefully crafted for worshippers to finally trust them. Robot priests are happening, but before preaching it, we need to look at how it will be designed, implemented, and received.