"Computer computer, on my screen — what's the fairest face you've ever seen?"

Presumably, that's what the folks at Youth Laboratories were thinking when they launched Beauty.AI, the world's first international beauty contest judged entirely by an advanced artificial intelligence system.

More than 600,000 people from across the world entered the contest, which was open to anyone willing to submit a selfie taken in neutral lighting without any makeup.


According to the scientists, their system would use algorithms based on facial symmetry, wrinkles, and perceived age to define "objective beauty" — whatever that means.

This murderous robot understands my feelings. GIF via CNBC/YouTube.

It's a pretty cool idea, right?

Removing all the personal taste and prejudice from physical judgment and allowing an algorithm to become the sole arbiter and beholder of beauty would be awesome.

What could possibly go wrong?

"Did I do that?" — These researchers, probably. GIF from "Family Matters."

Of the 44 "winners" the computer selected, seven of them were Asian, and one was black. The rest were white.

This is obviously proof that white people are the most objectively attractive race, right? Hahaha. NO.

Instead, it proves (once again) that human beings have unconscious biases, and that it's possible to pass those same biases on to machines.

Basically, if your algorithm is based mostly on white faces and 75% of the people who enter your contest are white Europeans, the white faces are going to win based on probability, even if the computer is told to ignore skin tone.

Plus, most cameras are literally optimized for light skin, so that probably didn't help the problem, either. In fact, the AI actually discarded some entries that it deemed to be "too dim."

So, because of shoddy recruitment, a non-diverse team, internal biases, and a whole slew of other reasons, these results were ... more than a little skewed.

Thankfully, Youth Laboratories acknowledged this oversight in a press release. They're delaying the next stage in their robotic beauty pageant until they iron out the kinks in the system.

Ironically, Alex Zhavoronkov, their chief science officer, told The Guardian, "The algorithm ... chose people who I may not have selected myself."

Basically, their accidentally racist and not-actually-objective robot also had lousy taste. Whoops.

Ooooh baby, racist robots! Yeah! GIF from Ruptly TV/YouTube.

This begs an important question: As cool as it would be to create an "objective" robot or algorithm, is it really even possible?

The short answer is: probably not. But that's because people aren't actually working on it yet — at least, not in the way they claim to be.

As cool and revelatory as these cold computer calculations could potentially be, getting people to acknowledge and compensate for their unconscious biases when they build the machines could be the biggest hurdle. Because what you put in determines what you get out.

"While many AI safety activists are concerned about machines wiping us out, there are very few initiatives focused on ensuring diversity, balance, and equal opportunity for humans in the eyes of AI," said Youth Laboratories Chief Technology Officer Konstantin Kiselev.

Of course you like that one. GIF from "Ex Machina."

This is the same issue we've seen with predictive policing, too.

If you tell a computer that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be criminals, for example, it's going to provide you with an excuse for profiling that appears on the surface to be objective.

But in actuality, it just perpetuates the same racist system that already exists — except now, the police can blame the computer instead of not taking responsibility for themselves.

"There is no justice. There is ... just us." GIF from "Justice League."

Of course, even if the Beauty.AI programmers did find a way to compensate for their unconscious biases, they'd still have to deal with the fact that, well, there's just no clear definition for "beauty."

People have been trying to unlock that "ultimate secret key" to attractiveness since the beginning of time. And all kinds of theories abound: Is attractiveness all about the baby-makin', or is it some other evolutionary advantage? Is it like Youth Laboratories suggests, that "healthy people look more attractive despite their age and nationality"?

Also, how much of beauty is strictly physical, as opposed to physiological? Is it all just some icky and inescapable Freudian slip? How much is our taste influenced by what we're told is attractive, as opposed to our own unbiased feelings?

Simply put: Attractiveness serves as many different purposes as there are factors that define it. Even if this algorithm somehow managed to unlock every possible component of beauty, the project was flawed from the start. Humans can't even unanimously pick a single attractive quality that matters most to all of us.

GIF from "Gilligan's Island."

The takeaway here? Even our technology starts with our humanity.

Rather than creating algorithms to justify our prejudices or preferences, we should focus our energies on making institutional changes that bring in more diverse voices to help make decisions. Embracing more perspectives gives us a wider range of beauty — and that's better for everyone.

If your research team or board room or city council actually looks like the world it's supposed to represent, chances are they're going to produce results that look the same way, too.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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