The makers of a bizarre new app claim it can analyze data from a commercial DNA test — including those offered by leading genetics startups 23andMe and MyHeritage — and use it to predict your sexual preferences.
Let’s be clear: The premise of the app, which is made by a startup called Insolent.AI and not-subtly titled “How gay are you?“, flies in the face of modern genetic research. In August, a massive study in the journal Science, with 493,001 participants, debunked the notion that there’s a “gay gene” hidden in your DNA that dictates your sexual preferences. As such, experts in genetics and bioethics told Futurism that the app is useless at best and dangerous at worst.
“My thoughts on this app is that it is garbage,” Deanna Church, a longstanding genetics expert and the Senior Director of Applications, Mammalian at the biotech company Inscripta, told Futurism. “You cannot tell ‘how gay’ someone is from looking at their DNA and I don’t think you will ever be able to do this.”
It’s true that sexuality is widely thought to be partially influenced by genetics, but not in a way that’s clear-cut or fully-understood. And yet here we are, living in a world where a startup charges $5.50 for the opportunity to trade your genetic information for a bizarre graph that claims to quantify your sexual orientation.
“Sounds terrible,” Katayoun Chamany, a geneticist and cell biologist at The New School Collaboratory, told Futurism.
The app itself exists in a miasma of circular logic. On its website, a blurb notes that the Science study found that there’s no obvious link between genetics and sexual orientation, but then claims that “instead, same-sex sexual behavior appears is influenced by hundreds or thousands of genes, each with tiny effects.”
The scientists behind the Science paper explained at length that their findings could not be used to create valid or accurate predictions of people’s sexuality — and yet the app claims to use the same study’s findings to place customers somewhere along a graph of “same sex attraction” based on their genetic profiles.
The app’s website also makes the claim, paradoxically, that it “does NOT predict same sex attraction” — an odd disclaimer for an app literally called “How gay are you?”
In reality, the most it could conceivably do is to compare a user’s gene expression against a large database of people with known sexualities, extrapolating that the customer would have similar preferences to people with similar DNA.
If so, implying that it can detect your sexual orientation is ethically egregious — hence, perhaps, its emphatic disclaimer.
“I won’t speculate on the intentions of the provider of the app, though it is clear the potential for misuse is great,” said Church. “It is clear the science to support this is not there.”
About those intentions. “How gay are you?” is available on GenePlaza, a company marketing itself as the first DNA and genetics-focused app store, where people can find new things to do with their DNA test results.
The app itself is the brainchild of the London-based startup Insolent and developer Joel Bellenson. Bellenson is currently based in Uganda, a fact first spotted by OneZero reporter Emily Mullin, who also pointed toward Reuters’ report that Uganda’s government is considering reinstating the death penalty for same-sex relationships.
As of press time, an Insolent spokesperson acknowledged Futurism’s request for comment but didn’t answer any questions. GenePlaza has not responded to Futurism’s request for comment, but GenePlaza founder Alain Coletta did tweet that he’s aware of the troubling state of affairs in Uganda and the implications of the app available on his platform.
A petition calling for the app’s removal had accumulated more than 1,000 signatures by press time.
The app is the latest in a line of troubling high-tech ways that allegedly identify people in the LGTBQ community. Just like those artificial intelligence algorithms that engineers claimed could determine people’s sexual preferences based on their faces, this DNA testing app has great potential to be an oppressive tool of discrimination.
Thankfully, the “How Gay Are You” app is similar to those facial recognition algorithms in another way: it’s just as likely to be totally inaccurate.
Editor’s Note: This article originally misstated Deanna Church’s employer. It has been updated.