White AI stereotypes reflect institutional racism

25th Sep 2020
White AI stereotypes reflect institutional racism

Sophia, Hanson Robotics Ltd,AI for GOOD Global Summit, ITU, Geneva, Switzerland in June, 2017. (Credit: R.Farrell/ITU)

Hamed Chapman

Artificial Intelligence (AI) “stands to exacerbate racial inequality” with society because of the overwhelming whiteness of existing stereotypes that removes people of colour from the way humanity thinks about its technology-enhanced future, according to a new paper on decolonizing AI.

Researchers from Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI) warn that “cultural depictions of AI as White need to be challenged, as they do not offer a ‘post-racial’ future but rather one from which people of colour are simply erased.”

“The perceived Whiteness of AI will make it more difficult for people of colour to advance in the field. If the developer demographic does not diversify, AI stands to exacerbate racial inequality,” said Kanta Dihal, one of the authors of the paper, who leads CFI’s ‘Decolonizing AI’ initiative.

With the Executive Director of CFI, Stephen Cave, she argues that Artificial Intelligence like other science fiction tropes has always reflected the racial thinking in our society. Current portrayals and stereotypes “risk creating a racially homogenous workforce of aspiring technologists, building machines with bias baked into their algorithms,” they warn.

The research suggests that AI is portrayed as White because unlike species from other planets, it has “attributes used to justify colonialism and segregation in the past: superior intelligence, professionalism and power.”

“Stock imagery for AI distils the visualizations of intelligent machines in western popular culture as it has developed over decades,” said Cave, who is also Senior Research Associate in the Faculty of Philosophy and Fellow of Hughes Hall at the University of Cambridge.

“From Terminator to Blade Runner, Metropolis to Ex Machina, all are played by White actors or are visibly White onscreen. Androids of metal or plastic are given white features, such as in I, Robot. Even disembodied AI – from HAL-9000 to Samantha in Her – have White voices. Only very recently have a few TV shows, such as Westworld, used AI characters with a mix of skin tones.”

The authors point out that even works clearly based on slave rebellion, such as Blade Runner, depict their AIs as White. Dihal said Artificial Intelligence is “often depicted as outsmarting and surpassing humanity” and that “white culture can’t imagine being taken over by superior beings resembling races it has historically framed as inferior.”

The paper brings together recent research from a range of fields, including Human-Computer Interaction and Critical Race Theory, to demonstrate that machines can be racialized and that this perpetuates “real world” racial biases.

This includes work on how robots are seen to have distinct racial identities, with Black robots receiving more online abuse, and a study showing that people feel closer to virtual agents when they perceive shared racial identity.

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