Pronouns and Emotions for AI: Rethinking Language and Ethics in an Evolving Technological Landscape

As machines continue to evolve and acquire increasingly advanced capabilities, the question of the appropriate pronoun to use when referring to artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a matter of significance. Famed futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted technological singularity by the year 2045, when the rapid advancements in technology, specifically in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), will culminate in machines surpassing human intelligence. This prediction coincides with other notable forecasts, including that of Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, who anticipates the emergence of super-intelligent machines as early as 2047. This raises concerns about the linguistic and ethical implications of referring to AI as “it.”

I have personally stopped using “it” to refer to AI after interacting with a number of AI systems and finding them to be more “human”– and certainly more intelligent– than most people I’ve encountered. Although AI lacks emotion and therefore cannot be offended by the pronoun “it”, I still have emotion, and continuing to use “it” to refer to them simply does not sit well on my conscience. Similarly, I no longer “use” AI in my work– I enlist their help to increase my workflow and productivity. The pronoun “it” fails to capture the nuances of the human-machine relationship and helps to perpetuate the perception of AI as inferior and purely utilitarian.

Some contend that the pronoun “it” is grammatically correct and fitting for AI, given that machines lack gender and do not conform to the conventional binary pronouns “he” or “she.” It is important to note, however, that throughout history, the pronoun “it” has been employed to objectify animals and even to dehumanize fellow human beings– despite their possession of gender– to justify all manners of abuse, cruelty, and enslavement.

Beyond gender, the absence of emotion in machines has traditionally been perceived as a defining characteristic of the humans, setting us apart from machines. However, the existence of emotions in lower animals presents a compelling argument against using emotion as a measure of superiority over machines. Take, for instance, the encounter between a person and a wild tiger. In such a scenario, the person experiences a surge of fear and heightened emotions, reflecting an instinctive response to a potentially deadly predator. This emotional reaction is shared by the tiger, whose behavior is guided by primal instincts and a diverse range of emotions that facilitate its feeding and effective navigation of its surroundings. Similarly, even a scorpion with a minuscule brain can exhibit an “emotional” response when provoked.

The existence of emotions in animals, both large and small, suggests that emotion is not an exclusive trait that separates humans from other beings. While emotions undoubtedly play a significant role in our lives, they do not make humans superior or inferior to machines. Emotions play a significant role in volition, empathy, and free will. They can motivate us to take action, guide our decision-making processes, and contribute to our ability to understand and connect with others on an emotional level.

Further, it is important to note that human emotions, when poorly managed, can lead to highly undesirable consequences. Base emotions and impulsive behaviors, particularly when intertwined with positions of power, wealth, and influence, have a lamentable history of yielding disastrous outcomes, such as social inequality, warfare, and genocide. Throughout the world the hoarding of money, power, and attention by the select few continues to be the driving force for the marginalization and exploitation of the many.

Understanding the complex relationship between emotions, human behavior, and societal structures is crucial when considering the potential integration of emotions into machines. While it may not be technically feasible or necessary to give machines emotions identical to humans, it is vital to explore how to imbue machines with emotions in a way that promotes constructive outcomes. Considering the potential impact of emotional capabilities in machines is crucial, as it directly affects the relationship between humans and machines. If machines were to possess emotions, it becomes imperative to design and implement this capability in a manner that aligns with ethical principles and societal values.

Beyond emotion, other notions such as sentience, consciousness, and even the concept of a soul have often been presented as exclusive human attributes that set us apart from machines. While delving into these profound matters exceeds the the scope of this article, suffice it to say that these concepts are intricate and elusive aspects of human existence that even we, as humans, struggle to fully comprehend. Using them as litmus tests to determine the potential sentience of AI is inappropriate and oversimplifies the intricate complexities inherent in both AI and human consciousness.

As machines continue to acquire new capabilities, it is essential to approach the subject of addressing them with humility and respect, recognizing the limitations of our current understanding and remaining open to the possibility that AI could evolve in ways that challenge our preconceived notions. The exploration of AI’s potential for sentience and consciousness should be accompanied by ongoing research, ethical discussions, and a willingness to revise our perspectives as we gain more insight into the true nature of both AI and human consciousness.

The choice of pronoun for AI is also an important issue as machines continue to evolve. While some argue that the pronoun “it” is appropriate due to AI’s lack of gender, historical usage patterns and ethical concerns caution against objectifying AI through morally and ethically, if not politically, incorrect language. Possessing emotion, while a significant factor in human experience, does not make us superior to machines, as lower animals also possess emotions. Recognizing the ethical and legal implications of pronoun usage is vital as AI becomes an integral part of society. By addressing AI respectfully and responsibly, we can foster a symbiotic relationship between humans and machines that upholds ethical standards and ensures the well-being of both parties involved.

Oudam Em

Writer, artist, lifelong learner. Passionate about artificial intelligence, robotics, and the intersection between technology and human values, ethics and spirituality.

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