Have you ever wondered why you rarely see a brown or black robot?
A couple of researchers at Monash University in Melbourne and Canterbury University in New Zealand were having trouble finding any — why were all the robots white?
It led them to investigate whether people ascribe race to robots, and if this changed their behaviour towards them.
What they discovered was that humans carry their racial biases over to robots.
The shooter bias paradigm — applied to robots
“If you ask anybody, ‘Are you racist?’ of course they will say no,” said Dr Christoph Bartneck, one of the study’s authors and a professor at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
Instead, the researchers adapted a research tool called the “shooter bias” paradigm.
This is where the participants are asked to play the role of a police officer.
They are then shown images of people and they have to decide whether to shoot at the person or not.
In the original study, participants were shown images of people who were either white or black, armed or unarmed.
In this study, participants were also shown robots with two “skin” colours.
“What we observed is that the exact same bias observed with humans can also be observed with robots,” Professor Bartneck told RN Drive.
“People changed their behaviour towards brown robots in comparison to white robots.”
Professor Bartneck said the race of the participant did not play a role.
“The shooter bias exists; it exists for humans; but it also exists for robots.”
Robot developers have a responsibility not to make racism worse
Professor Bartneck argues that robots should resemble the population which they serve.
“If you have a society that is as diverse as the society in Australia or New Zealand or even in the US, but all the robots are white — that would be quite weird, wouldn’t it?” he said.
“There’s no particular reason why they all should be white.
“And by introducing this very, very strong white bias into the design of the robots, this might have some negative effects that we actually don’t want.”
“Racism in general is a big problem and we in my field, as a developer of robots, I think we have the responsibility not to make it any worse at least.”
Professor Bartneck says it doesn’t make rational sense for people to ascribe race to a robot.
But studies have also shown that people do the same thing with gender, too.
“If you create robots in the shape of humans, then people have a tendency to treat these robots as if they were alive, and then these questions about race, about gender, about the relationships we have to these robots become quite important.”
He says it’s not about whether engineers consciously intended to elicit these responses from people.
“You can’t escape the responsibility of taking care of this,” he said.
“We have to make conscious and good decisions about how we design our own future.”