In computer science, the main outlets for peer-reviewed research are not journals but conferences, where accepted papers are presented in the form of talks or posters. In June, 2019, at a large artificial-intelligence conference in Long Beach, California, called Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition, I stopped to look at a poster for a project called Speech2Face. Using machine learning, researchers had developed an algorithm that generated images of faces from recordings of speech. A neat idea, I thought, but one with unimpressive results: at best, the faces matched the speakers’ sex, age, and ethnicity—attributes that a casual listener might guess. That December, I saw a similar poster at another large A.I. conference, Neural Information Processing Systems (Neurips), in Vancouver, Canada. I didn’t pay it much mind, either.
Not long after, though, the research blew up on Twitter. “What is this hot garbage, #NeurIPS2019?” Alex Hanna, a trans woman and sociologist at Google who studies A.I. ethics, tweeted. “Computer scientists and machine learning people, please stop this awful transphobic shit.” Hanna objected to the way the research sought... see more