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Does robotics have a race problem?

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Does robotics have a race problem? article image

A majority of humanoid robots are perceived to be racially white and urges manufacturers to pay attention to the racial politics of their robots, according to a leading Australian university professor.

Professor Robert Sparrow, from Monash University’s Department of Philosophy, examined images of 125 images humanoid robots from the ABOT (Anthromorphic roBOT) Database and found that between 66 and 72 per cent were likely to be racially coded as white.

He explores the ethical dilemmas surrounding race and robots in two recently published papers “Do robots have race?” and “Robotics has a race problem” which were respectively published in in IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine and Science, Technology, and Human Values.

According to Professor Sparrow, humans will respond differently to robots according to their perceived race. “Most humanoid robots have white surfaces and are therefore likely to be perceived as White,” Professor Sparrow says.

“In societies where particular occupations or social roles tend to be performed by persons of particular races, people may respond to the role of a robot as a racial cue and respond accordingly,” he says.

“If we imagine robots being used in law enforcement in the United States, African-American communities may be less willing to trust a white robot. Sending a white robot to police an African-American neighbourhood may be seen as provocative.”

Historical connotations

Professor Sparrow believes that “robot designers have an ethical obligation to manufacture racially diverse robots.”

However, manufacturing robots perceived as brown, black or Asian risks representing these people as slaves and evokes negative historical associations,” Professor Sparrow says.

“Engineers have a moral obligation to resist racial stereotypes in constructing robots.”

Engineers and technology companies should consider the broader societal context when designing robots,” Professor Sparrow continues. “Robot designers must pay attention to the racial politics of their robots, or their robots may fail badly in many applications.

“Engineers can only avoid this ethical and political dilemma by manufacturing robots that people don’t think of as having race, which may require making them non-humanoid or, for instance, blue,” Professor Sparrow says.

Robots and racism

In 2018, a study conducted by the Human Interface Technology Laboratory in New Zealand (HIT Lab NZ) and published by the University of Auckland, New Zealand titled "Robots And Racism” also found that humanoid robots were perceived have race.

The study used an extended replication of the classic social psychological shooter bias paradigm with robot stimuli to explore whether racial stereotypes apply white and black robots. Results confirmed that participants demonstrated ‘shooter-bias’ toward both black people and robots racialised as being black.

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