In 2015, there was #OscarsTooWhite. By 2025, will there be a movement for robots?
Mark Paterson, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, looked at why so many robots are white and the “problems of racial and gender bias in artificial intelligence algorithms and the data used to train large language models like ChatGPT.”
But Paterson wrote in The Conversation that these issues are now showing up in robots, “which have physical bodies modelled on nonthreatening versions of humans or animals and are designed to interact with people.”
He claimed that some robots are meant to interact with more diverse groups of people, such as helping people on the autism spectrum, children with special needs and stroke patients who need physical rehab.
But the robots “do not look like people or interact with people in ways that reflect even basic aspects of society’s diversity.”
Paterson believes it’s only going to get worse.
“Rates of diagnoses for autism in children of colour are now higher than for white kids in the U.S., and many of these kids could end up interacting with white robots.”
He acknowledged that one of the issues is the current inventory of robots and that most are not developed from scratch.
“These design choices tend to follow the clinical, clean look with shiny white plastic, similar to other technology products like the original iPod,” he wrote.
Paterson referred to a book on human machine interaction by anthropologist Lucy Suchman which gives a “cultural imaginary” (what is shared in pop culture, texts and images) of what robots are supposed to look like.
He explained that the cultural imaginary can be linked to how computer science and engineering teams view robot bodies.
“The cultural imaginary that enshrines robots as white, and, in fact, usually female, stretches back to European antiquity, along with an explosion of novels and films at the height of industrial modernity,” he said, mentioning how the first mentions of “android” and “robot” in books from the 1920s portrayed the fictional characters as “quick to be feminized and made servile.”
Paterson noted that aside from ethnically Japanese-looking robots, which tend to follow that subservient female gender stereotype, non-white robots are rare.
He referred to engineers Tahira Reid and James Gibert who suggested that “all human-machine interaction should be designed with diversity and inclusion in mind” but admitted the problem goes deeper than making machines using brown or black plastic.
He suggested changing robots’ appearances so they are “less universally white and female” and “reflect the diversity of people” and “diversifying forms of interaction,” which in the long run will make human-robot interaction “less scary.”
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