Can Robots Minimize Racism and Sexism?
Tue, April 20, 2021

Can Robots Minimize Racism and Sexism?

Robots have to appear "unhuman" to possibly reduce gender bias / Photo Credit: Phonlamai Photo (via Shutterstock)


Kim Elsesser of business news website Forbes wrote that robots are becoming a regular part of workspaces. They can serve as cashiers in a supermarket or they can perform more complicated tasks such as driving and sensing emotions. According to research published in peer-reviewed journal portal American Psychologist, thinking about robot workers makes individuals think they have more in common with other human groups. 

When the participants became more aware of robot workers, they became more accepting of immigrants and people of a different sexual orientation, race, and religion. Overall, the robots helped reduce prejudice by just highlighting the existence of a non-human group. Authors Joshua Conrad Jackson, Noah Castelo, and Kurt Gray said, “The large differences between humans and robots may make the differences between humans seem smaller than they normally appear.” Instead of classifying humans by race or religion, thinking about robots allowed the participants to think of everyone as part of one human category.

Robots also changed their behavior. Participants in one study were tasked to distribute financial bonuses to a hypothetical community of workers. After they viewed the photos and job titles of each community member, participants decided how much money each of the members deserved to receive as a bonus. When the group consisted solely of humans, they discriminated against racial minorities, giving an average of $4.67 less to African-American workers than to white workers. But when robots were added to the mix, the participants assigned equal salaries across racial divisions, bridging the racial pay gap.

When it comes to gender bias, it’s not clear whether robots would have an impact on this issue. Lead author Jackson conjectured, “To the extent that automation highlights commonalities between men and women, it should also reduce gender bias.” However, many robots are gendered, which may possibly prevent automation from reducing sexism. Since some robots are gendered and not associated with a race, they may not have the same impact in combatting gender bias.

Computers have gendered voices and human appearances so they look more similar to us, but Jackson and colleagues’ research suggests that we should do the opposite when creating robots, meaning they have to be “distinctively unhuman in appearance.” This way, the robots can help us find something more in common among our fellow humans.