30th November 2020

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Can We Make Our Robots Less Biased Than Us?

Adhering to the declaration would prohibit researchers from working on robots that conduct search-and-rescue operations, or in the new field of “social robotics.” One of Dr. Bethel’s research projects is developing technology that would use small, humanlike robots to interview children who have been abused, sexually assaulted, trafficked or otherwise traumatized. In one of her recent studies, 250 children and adolescents who were interviewed about bullying were often willing to confide information in a robot that they would not disclose to an adult.

Having an investigator “drive” a robot in another room thus could yield less painful, more informative interviews of child survivors, said Dr. Bethel, who is a trained forensic interviewer.

“You have to understand the problem space before you can talk about robotics and police work,” she said. “They’re making a lot of generalizations without a lot of information.”

Dr. Crawford is among the signers of both “No Justice, No Robots” and the Black in Computing open letter. “And you know, anytime something like this happens, or awareness is made, especially in the community that I function in, I try to make sure that I support it,” he said.

Dr. Jenkins declined to sign the “No Justice” statement. “I thought it was worth consideration,” he said. “But in the end, I thought the bigger issue is, really, representation in the room — in the research lab, in the classroom, and the development team, the executive board.” Ethics discussions should be rooted in that first fundamental civil-rights question, he said.

Dr. Howard has not signed either statement. She reiterated her point that biased algorithms are the result, in part, of the skewed demographic — white, male, able-bodied — that designs and tests the software.

“If external people who have ethical values aren’t working with these law enforcement entities, then who is?” she said. “When you say ‘no,’ others are going to say ‘yes.’ It’s not good if there’s no one in the room to say, ‘Um, I don’t believe the robot should kill.’”


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