AI Can Work Out A Neighborhood's Political Beliefs Using Google Street View

Not your normal vew: Pigeon-people on Tamagawa-josui sidewalk in Japan. Google Street View

Artificial intelligence (AI) can obtain unbelievably accurate insights into a neighborhood’s inhabitants – from their income and level of education to their ethnic background and political beliefs – just by looking at images from Google Street View.

If, for example, you wanted to see whether an area voted Republican or Democrat, the AI algorithm would be able to correctly tell you with over 80 percent accuracy, namely based on the types of vehicles riding on the road.

The deep-learning algorithm was developed by a team of computer scientists based at Stanford University. Their study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The AI system mined information from 50 million images of over 200 US cities from Google Street View. Throughout this process, it used an object recognition algorithm to clock tens of millions of houses, landscape features like shrubberies, and – most importantly – vehicles.

“Of these objects, vehicles are among the most personalized expressions of American culture,” the study reads. “Over 90 percent of American households own a motor vehicle and their choice of automobile is influenced by disparate demographic factors including household needs, personal preferences, and economic wherewithal.”

A simple breakdown of how the AI system identifies cars. T Gebru et al/PNAS/Google Maps/Google Earth.

Part of the AI’s work was discerning the vehicle’s model, price, and year of manufacture. It managed to work this out from the car make 66 percent of the time and could correctly tell whether it was manufactured in the US over 87 percent of the time. The team then paired this wealth of data with publicly available statistics on area demographics and voter preferences.

You might assume it’s not possible to accurately obtain information about political affiliation or race based on a car alone. For one, cars are mobile, so they don’t necessarily belong to the street, neighborhood, or city they are photographed in. Secondly, it could be shortsighted to associate a certain brand of car with a wide group of people.

Nevertheless, the AI prevailed.

“We found that by driving through a city while counting sedans and pickup trucks, it is possible to reliably determine whether the city voted Democratic or Republican," the team wrote. "If there are more sedans, it probably voted Democrat (88% chance), and if there are more pickup trucks, it probably voted Republican (82% chance).

“As another example, we estimated educational background in Milwaukee, Wisconsin zip codes, accurately determining the fraction of the population with less than a high school degree, with a bachelor's degree, and with postgraduate education.”

Although it's perhaps disconcerting a computer can understand your neighborhood simply using Google Street View, it’s undoubtedly a spectacular display of AI. Data means power, after all. You can only hope that this kind of technology will be used to understand the world around us better and remain out of nefarious hands.

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