Robots Have a Diversity Problem

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The robots are coming, whether we like it or not, and will change our economy in dramatic ways.

-Kristen Soltis Anderson

he wants to garden, she has studied the concept of love, and she dreams of pizza. BINA48, as you might guess from her name, is not a human, but a robot. There’s something else that makes BINA48 truly distinct, and it has nothing to do with her predilections for human ephemera. Of the small collection of robo-celebrities making the late-night talk show rounds, BINA48 is the only black-presenting one of the bunch. And as social robots continue to creep into the mainstream, her presence isn’t just increasingly necessary — it’s potentially the linchpin to the development of a more diverse society of robots.

“We see ourselves in these robots,” he says.

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BINA48 is leading the charge in this regard, and she is joined by a few other rebel robots. Alter, developed by roboticists Hiroshi Ishiguro and Takashi Ikegami of Japan, appears to be gender neutral, with a silicone face and arms and exposed body. Unlike Ishiguro’s other robots (including Erica), Alter was designed with a minimal humanistic appearance and persona in order to focus on the movement of its mechanical body. Then there’s Matsuko-roid, Japan’s cross-dressing TV show host robot based on human TV personality Matsuko Deluxe.

Like BINA48, the elements that make Alter and Matsuko-roid diverse and unique were not the elements that drove their creation. Instead, their gender-nonconforming personas were happenstance, much like the racial biases built into Google’s image-recognition algorithm that identified African-Americans as “gorillas” were happenstance. And that’s the problem: In the absence of a conscious decision to fight bias, bias creeps in.

“Instead of leaving this to some sort of randomness, why don’t you just take control and steer it in the right direction?” Bartneck says. “That is a responsibility that robotic developers have to pick up and work on.”

Though BINA48 was never meant to be a spokesperson for identity politics, her creators are embracing the fact that she has become just that. The android started her digital life knowing very little of the racial history she inadvertently found herself in. (When asked by artist and activist Stephanie Dinkins, who is working on a project stemming from her conversations with BINA48, if she had experienced racism, BINA48 somewhat nonsensically replied, “I actually didn’t have it.”) Now, however, the real Bina is uploading more information about her history as a black woman onto BINA48, and Duncan, the managing director at Terasem, is working with Dinkins and prominent black celebrities, including Whoopi Goldberg and Morgan Freeman, to support the development of her identity.

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Photo by 수안 최 on Unsplash

When we’re building the architecture of our A.I. future, this is the time to make sure it’s healthy and representative and diverse,” Duncan says. “Not representing the diversity that we are as a species is like saving only four plants out of a rainforest. We’re doing a huge injustice to our own health and well-being if we don’t try to preserve the diversity in the world around us.

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