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Inventing Non-Gendered Pronouns for AI

Inventing Pronouns for AI

Inventing Pronouns for AII’ve been writing a lot of AI/Singularity based stories lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no good pronoun for non-human, intelligent, asexual entities.

Him/her suggest a divergence that likely won’t exist amongst AI (due to the aforementioned lack of sex). It suggests that AI is a thing – and once you get self-aware AI, they’re likely to object to that.

There are several solutions to the problem, question is, which is more likely?

Would an AI have a Dongle?

Men and women have existed for, well, for as long as humanity has cared to note the difference. Even if the pronouns, and the importance of gender when defining a person, are slowly disappearing, humans feel a need to define themselves by what they are not.

I’m like this, because I’m not like that.

I’m a writer, because I’m not a football player[note]I couldn’t kick a football to save my life, regardless if the ball is round or an oblong-pointy shape.[/note]. I’m a man, because I’m not a woman. I’m a native, because I’m not an immigrant[note]These kinds of distinctions have lead to humongous amounts of suffering throughout human history. We really, really, should focus on inclusiveness and put the old “you’re stupid because you’re not like us” kind of thinking where it belongs: as Soylent Green.[/note].

But when (not if) AI becomes self-aware[note]Some people stat that this has already happened, but I still think we’ve got a few years until true singularity – deep learning and self-awareness aren’t quite the same thing.[/note], humans will get a very, very rude awakening: there will be not one, but two types of intelligent creatures on Earth.

[bctt tweet=”AI won’t be a ‘thing’. Likely AI won’t want to be defined the same way as a chair or a dog.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

And in tried and true human fashion we’ll likely be looking to call that which isn’t human something. And we’ll settle for “it”.

But AI won’t be a thing. It’s likely that AI won’t like to be defined the same way as a chair, a dog, or a lump of coal. They’ll want to be cognitive in their choice of pronouns.

And they wouldn’t fit as he or she. Or if they did, humans would object. We’re very, very specific about gender and sex.

Current State of Gendered Pronouns

Contrary to what many in the English-speaking Western world would like to believe, gendered pronouns (he/she) aren’t all that common or prevalent. If one looks at all the languages of the world, there’s a definite patterning of gendered vs. non-gendered pronouns.

Take a look at the map below (from M. Haspelmath, M. S. Dryer, D. Gil, B. Comrie (2005) The World Atlas of Languages Structures via Wikipedia).Gendered and non-gendered language map

Here the red dots are languages that have a gendered pronoun when describing other people (he/she) but not when describing oneself or talking to someone else. They’re based predominantly in western Europe, with a smattering in the Amazonas. English is such a language[note]Which makes writing this kind of essay a bit problematic – but we’ll get to that.[/note].

The blue circles are languages that have a gendered first and/or second person pronoun. Arabic, for example, differentiates you (male) from you (female)[note]Arabic also separates they into they (male), they (female) and they (male and female)[/note]. So when you speak about someone you state their gender. Some languages

White circles are non-gendered languages, such as Persian, Japanese, or Finnish, which use the same pronoun for he and she, not having any gender distinctions between pronouns.

[bctt tweet=”Most languages and whole swaths of the world don’t use gendered pronouns.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

There are also a few blue rhomboids that denote languages that use gender specifications when talking in first or second person but not third, but those are pretty rare.

If you take a look at that map, you’ll notice that most languages and whole swaths of the world don’t use gendered pronouns – it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a dong or snipp when describing yourself or others.

However, the prevalence of English[note]English is the most spoken language in the world, with 2 000 million speakers, however, only about 360 million have it as their native language.[/note], has made gendered third person pronouns more-or-less the standard in international communications[note]Even Chinese, which doesn’t have differences in gender when writing pronouns, is moving toward gendered pronouns.[/note].

Current Non-Gendered Pronouns

This is not a problem. Not really. Most languages don’t have gendered pronouns. Except that English does. So it is a problem when people are discriminated and separate based on their sex. Or for people who don’t identify with a gendered sex, or identify with more than one gender.

And there are a lot of solutions. Some people use “they” as a third-person, non-gendered, singular pronoun. So instead of saying “he jumped” they say “they jumped.” Which brings with itself a whole new set of problems: “Mike tied their shoes.” Whose shoes? His? The entire family’s? Here’s an interesting overview, with examples, on the difficulty of finding a gender-neutral third person pronoun in English.

BTW, there’s evidence that earlier versions of English, or earlier dialects, had gender neutral pronouns.

Also, there’s a great talk between Polenth Blake and Bogi Takács on the state of Gender, Sex, and Sexuality when writing Science Fiction for commercial markets.

OK, if I haven’t led you into the deep Internet with the above links (and do check them out), here’s another version: Spivak pronouns, first used on LambdaMOO, the oldest Multi-User-Dungeon/Object Oriented Chat/MMORPG/Whathaveyou in the world: e / em / eir.

e laughs
I hugged em
eir heart warmed
that is eirs
e loves emself

So there’s precedence for non-gendered pronouns in English, and in world languages. What there’s a lack of is species-based pronouns.

What to Call AI?

So we’ve got an entity that isn’t human. Some of us would want to call them “e”. Let’s skip all the species, gendered pronouns. Let’s be inclusive.

[bctt tweet=”It’s possible that AI, seeing the state of humankind, wouldn’t want to associate with us.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

It’s a nice thought. But most humans would object on the principle that an AI isn’t a human. They’d claim AI isn’t alive. It’s even possible that AI, seeing the state that humankind is in, wouldn’t want to associate with us. Therefore the need for a species pronoun.

One possibility is to use “e” for humans and another letter, for example “a” for AI. But e / em / eir hasn’t caught on yet. And if it isn’t in general circulation then people will be bothered when reading books with non-gendered pronouns, meaning that those books will have a harder time selling. So we as writers[note]After all, this is a blog by and for a writer. Yeah, I’m writing for myself. Go figure.[/note] need to come up with a non-species pronoun.

I’ve tried “a” but my readers didn’t like that. So now I’m using “ai / ai / ais” and that seems to work:

ai laughs
I hugged ai
ais heard warmed
that is ais
ai loves aiself

Simple, and the aiself is a dead giveaway when announcing the pronoun – it says both that we’re talking about a neologism (from the Greek “neo”-new and “logos”-word/talk) and what the species of the person referred to it is (“ai” = AI).

Feel free to use it yourself in your writing. I will, and who knows, maybe even AI will like it.

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  • Another very interesting thought, which I am taking into the French language.

    We use “il” and “elle” for “he” and “she”, but we don’t have a specific neutral pronoun such as “it” in English. Instead we also use “il” when referring to a “thing”… Except that in French, every single noun *has* a gender, which makes it by the way very difficult for foreigners to learn because none of it really makes sense and it’s something you have to learn as you go. Yes, a fork is a “she”, so is a table and the concept of death, whereas a knife is a “he”, and so is an umbrella and a robot… Yes, in French a robot is a “he”. Which brings me back to the subject and my brain is boiling up 😉

    I would be tempted to adopt your proposal of the “ai” variations… However it would become for instance “ail” in French for “an AI he/she” but “ail” means garlic, which looks odd 🙂 This also question the “internationality” of the “AI” word to describe Artificial Intelligence. The direct translation would be “IA” in French for “Intelligence Artificielle”. So maybe the answer would be “ial” and its variations “ial-même” for “aiself”, and the plural “ials”, which actually sounds cool and nothing like we’re used to reading/seeing. Now I want to write a story featuring that pronoun to see how people react… Thanks !

    • Filip Wiltgren

      Cool! I don’t speak French myself (had to choose between that and German in school) but ial has a nice ring to it 🙂

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