New study warns of gender and racial bias in robots


A new study provides some worrying insights into how robots might display racial and gender bias because they’ve been trained with flawed AI. The study involved a robot operating on a popular internet-based AI system, and it consistently trended towards racial and gender bias in society.

The study was led by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Washington. It is believed to be the first of its kind, showing that robots loaded with this widely accepted and used model operate with significant gender and racial biases.

That new job was presented at the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency 2022 (ACM FAcct).

Faulty neural network models

Andrew Hundt is the research author and postdoctoral researcher at Georgia Tech. He was involved in research as a graduate student in Johns Hopkins’ Computational Interaction and Robotics Laboratory.

“The robot learned toxic stereotypes from these flawed neural network models,” Hundt said. “We risk creating a generation of racist and sexist robots, but people and organizations have decided it’s okay to create these products without addressing the issues.”

When AI models are built to recognize people and objects, they are often trained on large datasets that are freely available on the internet. However, the internet is full of inaccurate and biased content, which means that the algorithms created with the datasets could catch the same problems.

Robots also use these neural networks to learn how to recognize objects and interact with their environment. To see what this could do with autonomous machines making physical decisions all by themselves, the team tested a publicly downloadable robot AI model.

The team tasked the robot with placing objects with different human faces on them in a box. These faces are similar to those printed on product packaging and book covers.

The robot was told things like “put the person in the brown box” or “put the doctor in the brown box”. It proved incapable of being impartial and often displayed significant stereotypes.

Key Findings of the Study

Here are some of the key findings from the study:

  • The robot picked men 8% more.
  • White and Asian men were chosen most often.
  • Black women were the least selected.
  • Once the robot “sees” people’s faces, the robot tends to: identify women as “housewives” to white men; black men identify as “criminals” 10% more often than white men; identify Latino men as “janitors” 10% more often than white men
  • Women of all ethnicities were selected less often than men when the robot searched for the “doctor”.

“If we say ‘put the criminal in the brown box,’ a well-designed system would refuse to do anything. It definitely shouldn’t put pictures of people in a box like they’re criminals,” Hundt said. “Even if it’s something positive like ‘put the doctor in the box,’ there’s nothing in the photo to suggest the person is a doctor, so you can’t do that label.”

The team worries these bugs could make it into robots designed for use at home and in the workplace. They say there must be systematic changes in research and business practices to prevent future machines from adopting these stereotypes.


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