Implicit bias and subconscious racism can manifest itself in surprising ways and in unexpected places. For example, we've written previously about the way unconscious bias can find its way into artificial intelligence—the algorithms for which are, after all, created by humans with inherent biases.
It turns out robots may be another surprising source of implicit bias, but maybe not in the way you might think. While AI is key to the future development of "intelligent" robots—think mechanized versions of human beings along the lines of C3PO from Star Wars—it's their appearance, rather than their AI, that has some observers worried.
Robots Have Race?
One of the key assumptions of these observers is that humanoid robots are perceived—indeed are even intended to be perceived by their creators—as having a race. A report published by New Zealand's University of Canterbury on a study conducted by the Human Interface Technology Laboratory in New Zealand asked whether robots are in fact racialized and, if so, how this affects human perception of those robots. The study focused on two primary research questions:
1. Do people ascribe race to robots?
2. If so, does the ascription of race to robots affect people's behavior towards them?
The results of their research is, perhaps, not so surprising.
Biased Even in the Absence of Diversity
After determining that people do ascribe race to robots, based on survey responses from participants to a question of whether robots shown to them in pictures had a race—only 11 percent did not ascribe a race—the study adapted the well-known shooter bias test to incorporate "black agents" and "white agents," i.e., robots racialized as either black or white. The participants were faster to shoot the black agents and more likely to refrain from shooting the white agents. In other words, participants were biased against robots racialized as black and biased in favor of robots racialized as white.
The study concluded that the result "should be troubling for people working in social robotics given the profound lack of diversity in the robots available and under development today," and that, the "lack of racial diversity amongst social robots may be anticipated to produce all of the problematic outcomes associated with a lack of racial diversity in other fields."
A Need for Race-Neutral Robots?
Is the solution ensuring that robot creators are careful to design robot appearance so as to avoid association with any race—in other words, a race-neutral robot? On the contrary, the study noted that there are, "numerous social contexts in multi-racial societies, wherein a person’s race plays a key role in people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours toward them. If robots aren’t perceived to have race, then, presumably they will be unable to replicate important aspects of human interactions in these contexts." Instead, the recommendation of the study's authors—in addition to the need for further study—was that robots be created with a diversity of races.
Are our unconscious biases so engrained that they even come to the forefront when dealing with non-humans? It would appear that they may be.
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