Fixing porn the human way

So artificial intelligence is no match for all-too-human pornography.

In a front page piece entitled "Problem for Hot Web Outfits: Keeping Out Porn" in yesterday's WSJ, Julia Angwin writes about the logistical challenges of censorship on My Space. Angwin explains that My Space has experimented with various algorithms for electronically weeding out pornographic images from the 280,000 new photos posted every day on the site. But none of these technology fixes worked and porn slipped through the electronic filter, one salacious image at a time:

"Yet even though the basic elements of these Web businesses are computerized, no one has worked out an effective technology fix for the porn problem. Some scanning software has a hard time distinguishing between pictures of nudes and apple pie, and certainly can't make the subtle judgment calls required of Photobucket's human censors. Naked breasts partly obscured with tape? OK! X-ray-like images of sexual acts? Delete!"

Angwin reminds fellow humans that computers can't think, especially about something as intellectually complex as a pornographic image. And she quotes Margaret Fleck, a computer expert at the University of Illinois:

Computers are fairly stupid compared to a toddler. If you ask a computer to find the ducks or the cows in a picture it would be completely lost."

So My Space, the ultimate 2.0 "scalable" business, had to resort to people -- the least "scalable", but most intelligent of solutions. Instead of algorithms, My Space has turned to individual human censors at a service called Photobucket, real people who sift through the daily images of flesh to determine whether or not they are appropriate for My Space's youth audience.

Not everyone will celebrate Photobucket. Libertarians will shrink back in horror at such an Orwellian affront to our core liberty to express ourselves sexually. Digital utopians, meanwhile, will defend the "intelligence" of algorithms and promise that artificial intelligence will, in the future, (it's always "in the future") make human thought redundant.

But I applaud My Space's use of the human censors at Photobucket for two reasons. Firstly, I strongly approve of censorship of pornography on the Internet. And if sites like My Space can't censor themselves, then I think the government must act to censor them. Secondly, I am delighted that human intelligence has, once again, revealed the empty promise of artificial intelligence. Whatever Ray Kurweil and his utopian chorus tell us, machines will never be able to think critically about something as perceptually complex as pornographic images.

To distinguish between what pornography is and what it isn't, computers would have to experience sexual arousal. And that might be one algorithm too far, even for the most evangelical of artificial intelligence utopians.