He is a racist. An Islamophobe. An anti-Semite.
She discriminated against me. She is prejudiced.
They are biased. They pre-judged me.
We are told this is flawed humanity in full view. Humans letting their emotions control rather than objectively assessing others.
If only humans were robots and logic ruled their decisions.
Then along comes this headline to burst our bubble.
This is from the story that accompanied that headline.
Embracing stereotypes or even forming a simple opinion about others may seem like a trait exclusive to humans, but a recent study shows that robots can develop prejudice and even discriminate in similar ways to people, too.
You might think that’s because they’re programmed that way, but the research by computer science and psychology experts at Cardiff University shows that robots and machines using artificial intelligence are capable of generating prejudice on their own.
How can this be? Aren't robots always supposed to be logical?
Robots are logical. The same goes for our brains. Due to that fact, bias is built into our brains.
Bias exists all around us. We stereotype. We profile. We discriminate. What troubles me is that we seem to be incapable of accepting this fact of life. We can't change the bias in the brain. You can only affect the experience that creates the bias that gets built into your brain.
What they are finding with robots should show us how true that is.
The fact is that we all stereotype because all of our brains use shortcuts to make decisions. It is the way the brain is wired. These shortcut pathways make decision making easier. It is the logical way to do things.
Our brain is a wondrous thing. A good portion of the calories we burn in a day goes to fuel this enormous power plant. Therefore, the brain always tries to make decisions that use the least amount of effort and energy it can. These shortcuts are called heuristics.
It does not mean that the decisions based on these shortcuts are always right. But they have generally served the human species well for the most part because it helped us to adapt and survive. We could make quicker and more efficient decisions even if we weren't right all the time.
For example, we learned early on that it was dangerous to go outside the cave at night because a higher percentage did not return as compared to when others left in daylight. We learned to avoid the plant with the funny looking berries. Uncle Abner made that mistake, may he rest in peace. Once we found a "safe" place we tended to stay there despite the fact that had we ventured over the hill we very well may have discovered an even better place.
If you are human you use heuristics, bias and stereotypes every day. If you don't know better you are going to start with a default position as you assess things. For example, if you are looking at a product you are not familiar with and you have two items to choose from, you are going to assume the expensive option is better. Experience has taught you it usually is. If you move to a new city and need to open a bank account, you are going to assume that the bank with 50 branches and the skyscraper downtown is better than the bank with one office. After all, if they got that big they must have done something right.
In both cases, a closer and detailed look may show you are totally wrong, but you will undoubtedly have an initial bias based on prior experience. Your brain is not going to start from ground zero when there are previous neural paths in your brain to rely on. There is bias built into your brain based on your experiences since you were a baby. That bias is not based on emotion. It is based on prior experience. It is logical to use it in making your next decision.
That is the reason my brain led me astray when I saw the recent story on a high school athlete running a sub-10 second 100 meters dash in Houston. I quickly assumed the athlete was African-American because times like that almost never come from anyone else. It was logical. However, I was wrong. That was the subject of my last blog post.
Prior to the 1970's, Asians who lived in the United States were stereotyped as cheap, poor, uneducated laborers. Products from Asia were derided as nothing more than cheap junk. That stereotype no longer exists. It literally has been turned on its head. Our actual experience has shown the prior generalization was wrong. It has been replaced with another stereotype that is also an overly broad generalization.
Today, students in high school and college cringe when they see Asian-Americans entering their classrooms on the first day of class. American businesses have also learned some hard lessons from their Asian counterparts. The old stereotype is gone. That change did not occur because people just started to think differently one day. It changed because people were forced to change their thinking because of what they experienced and the behaviors and results they saw from greater and greater numbers of Asians they came in contact with.
Any bias that the police may have in dealing with young, black men is rooted in their brains. It is based on their experiences in their field of duty. Look no further than the crime statistics if you have any doubts why a police officer might be quicker to draw a gun against a young black man compared to a White or Asian man.
The incidence of arrests for Blacks is over twice what it is for Whites on a per capita basis.
Blacks commit almost 5 times as many violent crimes (murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) per 1,000 population as Whites according to FBI data based on arrests for violent crimes.
Blacks commit eight times more crimes against Whites than Whites do on Blacks.
Consider what President Obama said about the very grandmother who supported and raised him.
"...my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
Was Madelyn Dunham a racist? Of course not. She loved for and cared for Barack Obama when his own mother could not or would not as she pursued her own life. His race did not matter to her, she loved his soul.
Her bias was not rooted in racism that lived within her brain. It was based on the life experiences she had in her brain. It was not right. However, that is where her brain led her based on her prior experience despite the facts she was raising Barack Obama in her own household.
It seems it is no different with robots.
Take a futuristic robot which is charged with monitoring shoplifting in a retail store. If the experience of that robot is that almost all of the thefts are being perpetrated by teen age males would you not expect the robot to start looking closer at every teen age boy who walked in the store?
If a robot is programmed to replace TSA agents in the future, and it consistently finds guns and knives in the carry-ons of Middle Eastern men in their 20's, would it be logical for the robot to be pulling over elderly African American women for additional searches? For example, would a robot have patted down 75-year old Diana Ross at the New Orleans Airport to point she was brought to tears. Is that the brain at work or something else?
If a robot takes over at Starbucks and sees a person with long hair, lipstick and eye shadow, would you not expect the machine to address that person as m'aam? It would not be wondering whether that person actually is self-identifying as a male.
Logic rules our brains.
We would do better if we all recognized that fact.
Bias can be overcome. However, it can't be done by changing the heart or appealing to emotions. It has to be done through the brain. Bias gets turned on its head when opposing reinforcing experiences get burned into the brain every day and in every way until the logic of the brain accepts a new stereotype. That is the way the human brain works. We now come to find it is not much different in how a robot works in assessing similar decisions.