Robots are not Sentient Beings

Robots are not sentient beings, sure, but racism flourishes well beyond hate-filled hearts.32 An indifferent insurance adjuster who uses the even more disinterested metric of a credit score to make a seemingly detached calculation may perpetuate historical forms of racism by plugging numbers in, recording risk scores, and “just doing her job.” Thinking with Baldwin, someone who insists on his own racial innocence despite all evidence to the contrary “turns himself into a monster.”33 No malice needed, no N-word required, just lack of concern for how the past shapes the present – and, in this case, the US government’s explicit intention to concentrate wealth in the hands of White Americans, in the form of housing and economic policies.

Detachment in the face of this history ensures its ongoing codification. Let us not forget that databases, just like courtrooms, banks, and emergency rooms, do not contain organic brains. Yet legal codes, financial practices, and medical care often produce deeply racist outcomes.

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The intention to harm or exclude may guide some technical design decisions. Yet even when they do, these motivations often stand in tension with aims framed more benevolently. Even police robots who can use lethal force while protecting officers from harm are clothed in the rhetoric of public safety.35 This is why we must separate “intentionality” from its strictly negative connotation in the context of racist practices, and examine how aiming to “do good” can very well coexist with forms of malice and neglect.36 In fact a do-gooding ethos often serves as a moral cover for harmful decisions. Still, the view that ill intent is always a feature of racism is common: “No one at Google giggled while intentionally programming its software to mislabel black people.”37 Here McWhorter is referring to photo-tagging software that classified dark-skinned users as “gorillas.” Having discovered no bogeyman behind the screen, he dismisses the idea of “racist technology” because that implies “designers and the people who hire them are therefore ‘racists.’” But this expectation of individual intent to harm as evidence of racism is one that scholars of race have long rejected.

We could expect a Black programmer, immersed as she is in the same systems of racial meaning and economic expediency as the rest of her co-workers, to code software in a way that perpetuates racist stereotypes. Or, even if she is aware and desires to intervene, will she be able to exercise the power to do so? Indeed, by focusing mainly on individuals’ identities and overlooking the norms and structures of the tech industry, many diversity initiatives offer little more than cosmetic change, demographic percentages on a company pie chart, concealing rather than undoing the racist status quo.

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