New Study Claims Racism Can Extend to Robots

A new study, called Robots And Racism, was recently conducted by a laboratory in New Zealand. It suggests that racial bias impacts how people view robots. The study asserts that humans typically use social cues to form first impressions about other people in terms of age, gender, and race. Research reveals that people use these same social categories when forming impressions of robots. Implicit racial biases can substantially impact people’s behavior towards others, studies have found.

Research from the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HIT Lab NZ) found that humans perceive robots with anthropomorphic features to have a race. Therefore, the racial prejudices humans experience are also extended to white and “Black” robots.

The study was based on a shooter bias test, which asked participants to assume the role of a police officer, judge the threat levels of Black and white humans and robots based on split-second images, and make snap judgements about shooting a supposed threat. It found that “Black” robots that did not pose a threat were shot at more often than white ones. “Of course, robots are not humans,” lead researcher Christoph Bartneck, a professor at the HIT Lab, told The Next Web. “Moreover, people barely had an opportunity to form prejudices against certain groups of robots — the power of the human mind to anthropomorphism is amazing.”

Bartneck said that people’s inherent bias against certain groups is the only reason they would showcase such attitudes against robots. “The bias against black robots is a result of bias against African Americans,” Bartneck said.

“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,” the study said. A Google image search for human-like robots results in predominantly white or metallic robots. The study noted 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.”

The researchers noted that if robots are to reflect humans when it comes to movement and emotion, they should also mirror the diversity of humans. “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,” the study said. “Human shaped robots should represent the diversity of humans,” Bartneck told The Next Web. He elaborated his position in an interview with CNN.

“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 said. “Robots are not just machines, but they represent humans.”

HIT Lab NZ conducted a second study during which lighter brown robots were added to the mix. The team found that as racial diversity among robots increased, participants’ racial bias towards all of the robots disappeared. This potentially shows that diversification among robots “might lead to a reduction in racial bias towards them.”

Bartneck told CNN that the second study led him to believe that “we have everything to win by offering racial options and nothing to lose.”

The studies conducted by HIT Lab NZ are far from the first to show implicit racial bias being applied to inanimate objects. Two psychologists conducted a series of experiments in the 1940s known as “the doll tests.” The study, by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, examined the psychological effects of segregation on Black children. Drs. Clark interviewed children from ages three to seven and asked them to identify the race of different dolls and choose which one they preferred, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. The psychologists found that a majority of the children chose the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it.

The “doll tests” concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” negatively affected Black children’s self-esteem by causing feelings of inferiority.


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.