Robots and Racism: Is This a Problem Actually Worth Solving?

Study by New Zealand’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory suggests people apply racial stereotypes to robots of different colors. No, seriously.

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Robots and Racism: Is This a Problem Actually Worth Solving?

If you’ve read any of my blogs in the past, you’ve probably noticed a particular tone of alarmism that permeates them. I guess you could say I don’t necessarily embrace all uses of technology—and often wonder if technology needs to be applied at all to things.

So, maybe it’s just me who thinks the new study by the Human Interface Technology Laboratory in New Zealand entitled “Robots and Racism,” is just a little bit…shall we say, out there. Granted, I haven’t read the full report, but it essentially says people apply racial biases to robots.

Really, that’s what it says.

The study “suggests people perceive physically human-like robots to have a race and therefore apply racial stereotypes to white and black robots,” according to a recent CNN report. “These colors have been found to trigger social cues that determine how humans react to and behave toward other people and also, apparently, robots.”

“The bias against black robots is a result of bias against African-Americans,” lead researcher Christoph Bartneck said in the CNN report. “It is amazing to see how people who had no prior interaction with robots show racial bias towards them.”

The researchers think this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“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,” according to the Robots and Racism study.

Robots And Racismhologram marriage, digisexuals

Inside the Robots and Racism Study

The robots used in the study are clearly robots but have human-like limbs and a head, with complexions that are white or black. In the “shooter bias” test, black and white people and robots appeared on a screen for less than a second, and participants were told to “shoot” those holding a weapon. Black robots that were not holding weapons were shot more than the white ones not carrying guns.

Researchers  see over-representation of white robots in Google Images searches for “robots,” for example, as potentially harmful to the perception of other races.

The researchers also see over-representation of white robots in Google Images searches for “robots,” for example, as potentially harmful to the perception of other races.

“Human-shaped robots should represent the diversity of humans,” said Bartneck. “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.

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

In a second study, the HIT Lab NZ team added lighter brown robots, finding that as they increased the racial diversity, participants’ racial bias toward the robots disappeared altogether.

This “potentially means that diversification of robots might lead to a reduction in racial bias towards them,” according to that study.

“This leads me to believe that we have everything to win by offering racial options and nothing to lose,” Bartneck told CNN.

I know I’m a middle-aged white man who is generally immune from the ills of racism personally but I’m struggling to understand who would want this research and who actually believes people would be racist toward machines, no matter how lifelike they appear.

Am I naïve or is this a little bit out there?

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About the Author


Craig MacCormack is a veteran journalist who joined Security Sales & Integration in June 2023 as web editor. He is also the former executive editor of Commercial Integrator (2011-2021).

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  • William Phelps says:

    To answer the premise of the article, it is a problem worth solving. I have read both reports cited in your article; and, the studies appear to be well researched. Also, note that they were published in well respected/reviewed journals — not in tabloids.

    To answer your questions at the end, companies that make interactive technology would want this information; people who have been in the room with someone exhibiting racist behavior might believe it could happen; and, the research is not ‘out there.’

    If you want to explore a different angle, you may wish to review the following report. [National Stereotypes and Robots’ Perception: The “Made in” Effect] It is open access; so, it won’t cost anything but your time to read.

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