Posted on November 27, 2020

Can We Make Our Robots Less Biased Than We Are?

David Berreby, New York Times, November 22, 2020

On a summer night in Dallas in 2016, a bomb-handling robot made technological history. Police officers had attached roughly a pound of C-4 explosive to it, steered the device up to a wall near an active shooter and detonated the charge. In the explosion, the assailant, Micah Xavier Johnson, became the first person in the United States to be killed by a police robot.

Afterward, then-Dallas Police Chief David Brown called the decision sound. Before the robot attacked, Mr. Johnson had shot five officers dead, wounded nine others and hit two civilians, and negotiations had stalled. Sending the machine was safer than sending in human officers, Mr. Brown said.

But some robotics researchers were troubled. “Bomb squad” robots are marketed as tools for safely disposing of bombs, not for delivering them to targets. {snip} Their profession had supplied the police with a new form of lethal weapon, and in its first use as such, it had killed a Black man.

“A key facet of the case is the man happened to be African-American,” Ayanna Howard, a robotics researcher at Georgia Tech, and Jason Borenstein, a colleague in the university’s school of public policy, wrote in a 2017 paper titled “The Ugly Truth About Ourselves and Our Robot Creations” in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics.

Like almost all police robots in use today, the Dallas device was a straightforward remote-control platform. But more sophisticated robots are being developed in labs around the world, and they will use artificial intelligence to do much more. A robot with algorithms for, say, facial recognition, or predicting people’s actions, or deciding on its own to fire “nonlethal” projectiles is a robot that many researchers find problematic. The reason: Many of today’s algorithms are biased against people of color and others who are unlike the white, male, affluent and able-bodied designers of most computer and robot systems.

While Mr. Johnson’s death resulted from a human decision, in the future such a decision might be made by a robot — one created by humans, with their flaws in judgment baked in.

“Given the current tensions arising from police shootings of African-American men from Ferguson to Baton Rouge,” Dr. Howard, a leader of the organization Black in Robotics, and Dr. Borenstein wrote, “it is disconcerting that robot peacekeepers, including police and military robots, will, at some point, be given increased freedom to decide whether to take a human life, especially if problems related to bias have not been resolved.”

Last summer, hundreds of A.I. and robotics researchers signed statements committing themselves to changing the way their fields work. One statement, from the organization Black in Computing, sounded an alarm that “the technologies we help create to benefit society are also disrupting Black communities through the proliferation of racial profiling.” Another manifesto, “No Justice, No Robots,” commits its signers to refusing to work with or for law enforcement agencies.

Over the past decade, evidence has accumulated that “bias is the original sin of A.I,” Dr. Howard notes in her 2020 audiobook, “Sex, Race and Robots.” Facial-recognition systems have been shown to be more accurate in identifying white faces than those of other people. {snip}


Robot researchers are typically educated to solve difficult technical problems, not to consider societal questions about who gets to make robots or how the machines affect society. So it was striking that many roboticists signed statements declaring themselves responsible for addressing injustices in the lab and outside it. They committed themselves to actions aimed at making the creation and usage of robots less unjust.

“I think the protests in the street have really made an impact,” said Odest Chadwicke Jenkins, a roboticist and A.I. researcher at the University of Michigan. {snip}


Dr. Jenkins was one of the lead organizers and writers of one of the summer manifestoes, produced by Black in Computing. Signed by nearly 200 Black scientists in computing and more than 400 allies (either Black scholars in other fields or non-Black people working in related areas), the document describes Black scholars’ personal experience of “the structural and institutional racism and bias that is integrated into society, professional networks, expert communities and industries.”

The statement calls for reforms, including ending the harassment of Black students by campus police officers, and addressing the fact that Black people get constant reminders that others don’t think they belong. {snip}


As the Black in Computing open letter addressed how robots and A.I. are made, another manifesto appeared around the same time, focusing on how robots are used by society. Entitled “No Justice, No Robots,” the open letter pledges its signers to keep robots and robot research away from law enforcement agencies. Because many such agencies “have actively demonstrated brutality and racism toward our communities,” the statement says, “we cannot in good faith trust these police forces with the types of robotic technologies we are responsible for researching and developing.”

Last summer, distressed by police officers’ treatment of protesters in Denver, two Colorado roboticists — Tom Williams, of the Colorado School of Mines and Kerstin Haring, of the University of Denver — started drafting “No Justice, No Robots.” So far, 104 people have signed on, including leading researchers at Yale and M.I.T., and younger scientists at institutions around the country.


Dr. Williams is not opposed to working with government authorities. He has conducted research for the Army, Navy and Air Force, on subjects like whether humans would accept instructions and corrections from robots. (His studies have found that they would.). The military, he said, is a part of every modern state, while American policing has its origins in racist institutions, such as slave patrols — “problematic origins that continue to infuse the way policing is performed,” he said in an email.

“No Justice, No Robots” proved controversial in the small world of robotics labs, since some researchers felt that it wasn’t socially responsible to shun contact with the police.