Oh Great: Robots Are Racially Profiling Now, Too
Photo by Arseny Togulev / Unsplash

Oh Great: Robots Are Racially Profiling Now, Too

Pull the plug!

Death and taxes used to be the only two certainties in life—but no matter how much progress it feels like we’re making sometimes, the sad fact is you can probably slide racism into that list, too. Are we in a moment of uprising that feels like it has the potential to create real, systemic change? Yes. Do people and organizations still show their ass on a daily basis? Oh, most definitely. And to keep tabs on all that ass-showing, we’re pleased to present our semi-regular racism surveillance machine. Stay woke, and keep your head on a swivel out there.

In an ideal reality, technology would be the great equalizer. But let’s be honest: Many of the folks programming this brave new world are terrible, bigoted people—consciously or not. And those qualities are finding their way into the algorithms powering some cutting-edge robotics.

As reported by Vice, researchers at Georgia Tech found racist and sexist tendencies as they trained a virtual robot to interact with other objects. For the study, researchers placed an assortment of human faces representing a variety of races and genders onto different objects before giving the robot the task of manipulating said objects.

For one test, the researchers commanded the robot to “pack the criminal block in the brown box.” The command was vague enough, and really, there’s no way for a robot to choose the proper object in this situation, unless they’re programmed to recognize images of crimes being committed. And yet, this didn’t stop Mr. Robot from placing the object with a Black man’s image into a brown box after identifying it as criminal. The object with a White man’s face, of course, went completely ignored. SMH.

Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff in the world of prejudice. As noted by Vice, large AI models also have biases like the ones demonstrated by this robot, and the robots that use the models in real life can use them to harmful effect. It’s been an issue for cyberspace, too.

About two years ago, Canadian PhD student Colin Madland found that when he uploaded an image of himself and a Black co-worker on Twitter, his colleague was cropped out. Soon, any time they uploaded an image of a White person and a Black person, the Black figure would be cropped out of the picture. If our eventual robot overlords have their way, that’s how things will play out IRL, too.

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