Robot racism? Yes, says a study showing humans’ biases extend to robots

Have you ever noticed the popularity of white robots?

You see them in films like Will Smith’s “I, Robot” and Eve from “Wall-E.” Real-life examples include Honda’s Asimo, UBTECH’s Walker, Boston Dynamics’ Atlas, and even NASA’s Valkyrie robot. All made of shiny white material. And some real-life humanoid robots are modeled after white celebrities, such as Audrey Hepburn and Scarlett Johansson.

The reason for these shades of technological white may be racism, according to new research.

“Robots And Racism,” a study conducted by the Human Interface Technology Laboratory in New Zealand (HIT Lab NZ) and published by the country’s University of Canterbury, suggests people perceive physically human-like robots to have a race and therefore apply racial stereotypes to white and black robots.

These colors have been found to trigger social cues that determine how humans react to and behave toward other people and also, apparently, 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.”

The researchers think this is an issue that needs to be addressed. “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.

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.

Run a simple Google Image search on the term “robot.” You won’t see a lot of color, as pointed out in the study. The researchers see this overrepresentation of white robots as potentially harmful to the perception of other races.

Robot designers come from all corners of the world, Bartneck pointed out, yet they still idealize white robots.

“Human-shaped robots should represent the diversity of humans,” Bartneck told The Next Web.

“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.”

In a second study, the HIT Lab NZ team added lighter brown robots, finding that as they increased the racial diversity, participants’ racial bias toward the robots disappeared altogether. This “potentially means 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.”

This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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