Robots and racism: People bias towards darker robots

People have similar automatic biases towards darker-coloured robots as they do toward people with darker skin colour. UC human-robot interaction expert Associate Professor Christoph Bartneck was one of seven who contributed to the Robots and racism research that was presented in Chicago at an international conference on human-robot interaction this month. 

"We had two robots that were either brown or caucasian white and it turned out that people indeed showed racial bias when interacting or acted towards these robots in the sense that the same prejudice that they have towards African-Americans are transported towards the brown robots," says Bartneck.

The Associate Professor explains that most people don't have experience interacting with robots, therefore no opportunity to place prejudice towards robots yet were treated as if the robots represented Caucasians or African-Americans. Bartneck admits he too was surprised by the findings of the collaborative research. The researchers used an experiment called shooter-bias where participants were placed into the role of a police officer and shown an image, then decide whether or not they shoot. The time it took, and if they chose to shoot were used as indicators. 

"If you just type into google robot or androids, what you'll see is an endless list of white robots, so the vast majority of robots being produced today are white, and our society, of course, is much more diverse and if we consider all these robots taking up roles in the future as teachers or as caretakers, then it really raises the question about where we should really offer more diversity in the design of robots."

The researchers come from four universities and are made of members with different nationalities and ethnicities. 

"We hope that our paper might inspire reflection on the social and historical forces that have brought what is now quite a racially diverse community of engineers to - seemingly without recognising it - design and manufacture robots that are easily identified by those outside this community as being almost entirely 'white'."