The disturbing rise of racist robots

One of us: This robot called Sophia was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship in 2017. © Lightrocket

Are robots racist? AI computers are showing sexist and racist bias. A growing number of experts fear that we have created AI in our own worst image, and it could have awful consequences.

You’ve probably seen the images popping up on social media. Pictures of your friends and acquaintances, their faces framed by green boxes and strange labels. It’s all down to ImageNet Roulette, an artificial intelligence (AI) craze sweeping the internet.

It’s a simple idea. Upload a selfie to an AI computer, and it will categorise you based on its knowledge of over 14 million photographs from across the internet.

Some of the labels it gives out are flattering — who doesn’t want to recognised as “leader” or “president”? — and others are less so: “swot”, “nerd”, “dweeb”.

But some are disturbing. Chinese-Jewish writer Julia Carrie Wong wrote in The Guardian that the programme called her a racist insult. Many more people of colour have reported offensive labels.

You might think something went horribly wrong but, in fact, ImageNet Roulette is working exactly as its creators intended.

“We want to shed light on what happens when technical systems are trained on problematic training data,” they wrote.

As robots learn the data (arrest records, postcodes, social connections and income) fed to them, they are also learning to copy our biases.

This year, tech firms are expected to spend $35.8 billion (£31.8 billion) on AI development. What kind of future are we heading towards?

Heart of darkness

Are robots racist? For all the talk of machine learning, the bias in AI computers proves that they cannot learn like humans: they don’t understand morality, or institutional discrimination, or other unequal forces that shape society.

But surely it is wrong to say that it’s the robots that are racist? They are a blank slate, ruled by logic. Of course they can’t be biased. They are taught to be so by us. Corners of the internet are filled with hatred; unemployment and income figures show constant racial inequality. AI is mimicking our worst instincts: it is we who need to change.

You Decide

  1. Should we stop developing artificial intelligence?


  1. Write five commandments or rules of your own about how AI should be used.

Some People Say...

“In general, when it comes to AI, many of us subconsciously cling to the selfish notion that humanity is the endpoint of evolution.”

Steve Jurvetson, US businessman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Machine learning is the area of AI that seeks to teach robots how to learn and change their behaviour like human beings. It is how Netflix knows what films it should recommend to you, for example.
What do we not know?
How we can make AI less biased. Many private companies who make the algorithms are secretive about how they work, fearing their rivals could copy the technology.

Word Watch

Someone who you have met a few times, but don’t know that well.
Artificial intelligence
Developing computers that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception and speech recognition.
Troubling; flawed.
Unfair prejudices in a particular direction.
Many private companies who make the algorithms are secretive about how they work, fearing their rivals could copy the technology. This makes it hard to detect and erase AI bias.

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