Does robotics have a race problem?

Does robotics have a race problem? Professor Robert Sparrow, from Monash University’s Department of Philosophy, explores the ethical dilemmas surrounding race and robots in two recently published papers.

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

“Most humanoid robots have white surfaces and are therefore likely to be perceived as White,” Professor Sparrow said.

Humans will respond differently to robots according to their perceived race, according to Professor Sparrow.

“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 said.

“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.­­

“Robot designers have an ethical obligation to manufacture racially diverse robots,” he added.

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

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

Professor Sparrow says engineers and technology companies should consider the broader societal context when designing robots.

“Robot designers must pay attention to the racial politics of their robots, or their robots may fail badly in many applications,” he said.

“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’s findings were published in a paper titled “Do robots have race?” in IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine on 29 October 2019. His paper “Robotics has a race problem” was published in Science, Technology, and Human Values on July 28, 2019.