Can Robots be Racist?

So, can robots – and, by extension, other types of technologies – be racist? Of course they can. Robots, designed in a world drenched in racism, will find it nearly impossible to stay dry. To a certain extent, they learn to speak the coded language of their human parents – not only programmers but all of us online who contribute to “naturally occurring” datasets on which AI learn. Just like diverse programmers, Black and Latinx police officers are known to engage in racial profiling alongside their White colleagues, though they are also the target of harassment in a way their White counterparts are not.40 One’s individual racial identity offers no surefire insulation from the prevailing ideologies.41 There is no need to identify “giggling programmers” self-consciously seeking to denigrate one particular group as evidence of discriminatory design. Instead, so much of what is routine, reasonable, intuitive, and codified reproduces unjust social arrangements, without ever burning a cross to shine light on the problem.

A representative of Microsoft likened the care they must exercise when they create and sell predictive algorithms to their customers with “giving a puppy to a three-year-old. You can’t just deploy it and leave it alone because it will decay over time.”43 Likewise, describing the many controversies that surround AI, a Google representative said: “We are in the uncomfortable birthing stage of artificial intelligence.”44 Zeros and ones, if we are not careful, could deepen the divides between haves and have-nots, between the deserving and the undeserving – rusty value judgments embedded in shiny new systems.

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