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Racism May Extend to Robots

A new study finds a robot's color affects how people react to it.

The racist clichés are, unfortunately, familiar: Black people possess enormous strength. That makes them potential threats.

New research suggests this pernicious prejudice may also apply to robots.

Participants in a recently published study "appeared to be more fearful of black robots just because they were black," writes a Mississippi State University research team led by Jeannice Louine and David C. May. "These findings suggest that common perceptions, or misperceptions, of humans transcend human relationships."

The study, published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, featured an online survey in which adult participants reported their perception of three robots, and "predicted how they would behave in the event that they interacted with a robot."

In the first, the 253 participants were shown pictures of robots of three colors—black, yellow, and beige. After viewing each, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire measuring their response to that specific machine. They were asked how likable, helpful, and trustworthy it was, how caring and compassionate it seemed, and the extent to which they considered it friendly, reliable, and competent.

Color was not a factor in estimating a robot's capabilities. But "black, as well as neutral, robots generally scored higher on strength, and lower on affability, than yellow robots," the researchers report.

In addition, 251 of the participants were shown six pictures of the robots in a variety of settings. They were instructed to "imagine that you are interacting with the robot in the environment shown above," and describe what they would do if they "encountered the robot pictured while I was walking by."

Answers included "Observe the robot and keep moving along my current path," "Take a path to move me further from it," and "Try to interact with the robot."

"Participants were significantly more likely to report that they would move away from the robot if the robot was black than if it was either yellow or neutral," the researchers report. In addition, "they were less likely to stop when the saw the robot if the robot was black than if it was neutral or yellow."

These findings may actually understate the extent of implicit anti-black prejudice, "given that the robot used in this study was clearly mechanical in appearance," they add. "It is quite possible that respondents would be much more likely to anthropomorphize a robot with a human appearance."

The researchers find a potentially positive message in these results. They speculate that discussions of why black robots are stigmatized may open the door to honest conversations about societal racism.

"Articulating this effect with robots," they write, "may be less controversial, and thus less threatening, to those people that hold this stereotype." Starting there, and then segueing to humans, could increase the chance of holding a productive discussion.

Somewhere, R2-D2 is beeping in agreement.