The majority of robots are white. Do a Google image search for “robot” and see for yourself: The whiteness is overwhelming. There are some understandable reasons for this; for example, when we asked several different companies why their social home robots were white, the answer was simply because white most conveniently fits in with other home decor.
But a new study suggests that the color white can also be a social cue that results in a perception of race, especially if it’s presented in an anthropomorphic context, such as being the color of the outer shell of a humanoid robot. In addition, the same issue applies to robots that are black in color, according to the study. The findings suggest that people perceive robots with anthropomorphic features to have race, and as a result, the same race-related prejudices that humans experience extend to robots.
Christoph Bartneck, the lead author of the study and a professor at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, presented the results at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human Robot Interaction (HRI) in Chicago earlier this year.
“We hope that our study encourages robot designers to create robots that represent the diversity of their communities,” Bartneck told me. “There is no need for all robots to be white.”
Bartneck suspected the research could prove controversial, but he and his collaborators—from Guizhou University of Engineering Science, China; Monash University, Australia; and University of Bielefeld, Germany—were determined to pursue the issue. “The discussion on this topic was like walking through a minefield,” he said, adding that their paper received extensive scrutiny from reviewers, some of whom accused the authors of sensationalism.
To learn more about the project, and the controversy surrounding it, we spoke with Bartneck via email. If you’d like more details on the methods used, statistical analyses applied, and numerical results, the full paper is available for download here.