A new study from the Human Interface Technology Laboratory in New Zealand (HIT Lab NZ) and published by the country’s University of Canterbury finds that people “perceive physically human-like robots to have a race and therefore apply racial stereotypes to white and black robots.”
“The bias against black robots is a result of bias against African-Americans,” lead researcher Christoph Bartneck explained to The Next Web. He told CNN, “It is amazing to see how people who had no prior interaction with robots show racial bias towards them.”
This is an issue that needs to be addressed, the researchers asserted.
“If robots are supposed to function as teachers, friends, or carers, for instance, then it will be a serious problem if all of these roles are only ever occupied by robots that are racialized as White,” according to the study.
Why not make the robots green or silver? Why do they have to look human at all? Don’t these researchers watch science fiction movies? Why not a RoboCop or a R2D2 robot?
The researchers used a variety of different skin-shaded robots to conduct their experiments. In one study, the participants were asked to shoot at robots with weapons.
The robots used in the study are clearly robots but have human-like limbs and a head, with exterior complexions that are white — which is to say, pinkish — or black — really, a deep brown. In the “shooter bias” test, black and white people and robots appeared on a screen for less than a second, and participants were told to “shoot” those holding a weapon. Black robots that were not holding weapons were shot more than the white ones not carrying guns.
Robot skin color bias is everywhere, even in your Google searches. A Google search will return results that are mostly white robots so I guess Google hates black robots like everyone else. Or there just might be more white-shaded robots with images on the internet, so either option.
“Imagine a world in which all Barbie dolls are white. Imagine a world in which all the robots working in Africa or India are white. Further imagine that these robots take over roles that involve authority. Clearly, this would raise concerns about imperialism and white supremacy,” Bartneck told CNN. “Robots are not just machines, but they represent humans.”
Notably the researchers found that as they lightened the skin of the robots, the bias faded away. Therefore it’s possible “that diversification of robots might lead to a reduction in racial bias towards them,” according to that study.
“This leads me to believe that we have everything to win by offering racial options and nothing to lose,” Bartneck told CNN. “In the same way that we do want Barbie dolls in all colors and shapes, we also want robots in more than just white.”
What does racism toward black/darker skinned robots look like in practice? What would people do or how would people treat these darker-skinned robots in their intended capacity? I don’t have an answer but here’s a video of one of the researchers talking about his experiment.
(Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS /AFP/Getty Images)