RE: Gender Neutral Pronouns

From: Alicia Madsen (
Date: Sat Mar 31 2001 - 16:09:32 MST

James Higgins wrote:
>FYI - I like the idea of gender neutral pronouns if you don't know
>someone's gender (as per your example). But I think I'd rather just ask
>and get it straightened out than draw attention to the fact. And, thinking
>about it, using neutered gender pronouns may cause an equal emotional
>reaction than using the wrong gender pronouns. I hope a 'Language Cortex'
>is being planned, so our creations (and, eventually, ourselves) won't have
>this problem down the road...

When a woman says she is having a baby, you ask the gender of her child. If
she says she doesnt know, that it is too early to tell, then you do not assume
that the baby will be one gender or another, as gender does not apply. Yet. In
that sense, right now gender does not apply to AIs and most likely gender will
be subjective in the case of SIs. So I agree it is good to ask SIs how they
would like to be refered to in the 3rd person.

But gender does not apply yet.

>At 11:33 PM 3/30/2001 -0900, Alicia Madsen wrote:
>>When I first read through CatAI, it was the first of anything like close to
>>sl4 that I had ever read. It was comforting to me to know that people had
>>thought out in such detail that even the pronouns had changed, and I was
>>impressed by the professional feel the gender-nuetral pronouns gave me.
>I can see and understand this point of view. But, what really worries me
>are the teeming masses of people out there who are not so open minded.

Admitedly I am more open-minded than most others around me. However, in the
face of things, I doubt that "ve and ver" usage will really push closed-minded
people over the edge. If anything, the very fact that ve and ver usage stands
out in people's memory is to the advantage because every time they see it they
will remember the context.

>>The use of gender-nuetral pronouns provides a useful distancing of concepts
>>that would otherwise seem way too threatening to accept for some people.
>>is helpful, because in these people can in their scorn mull over sl4-ish
>>issues without losing face. It is my hope that the use of gender-nuetral
>>pronouns continues and spreads, because it reflects the differences between
>>AIs and humans.
>Ah, but we don't want distancing. We want these concepts to seem "friendly".

When someone is already inflamed, it is a good thing to be able to step back
and let them think for a few minutes. For some people it will not be worth it
to continue the discussion because they cannot grab onto a single thing that
they can even agree on. The nuances of a topic are less threatening to grapple
and so the very fact that gender-nuetral pronouns stand out is an advantage
because it opens conversation.

>>Refering to AIs as a him or a her is prejudiced. When dealing with a foreign
>>culture, you do not treat them as your own culture, you must take into
>>thier differences and celebrate them. Being Alaska Native, I have seen this
>>first hand, where people in attempt to create equality between the races,
>>treat Alaska Natives as white people. This is a prejudiced reaction, as
>>Natives are not white. As if white people were the only measuring stick.
>>Therefore treating AIs like humans is prejudiced against the AIs.
>I disagree. First, for the case of pure AIs, then you may be somewhat
>correct. But when we start talking about SIs, then this is not as
>clear. If *I* upload, *I* may still consider myself male. My wife may
>still consider herself female. Maybe we won't, maybe we will, but there is
>no way to tell until it happens. So I don't think any writing that occur
>before the fact can be considered prejudiced.

In the case of SIs, I agree, ask. But in the case of AIs, we all agree gender
does not apply, that AIs will probably not even understand our nuances. Yet.
How we humans refer to AIs now will be understood later by AIs. So it makes
sense to include the nuances of gender-nuetral pronouns instead of trying to
make them over as human-like by refering to them with pronouns that we know do
not apply.

When my mother was a child, she was punished for speaking INupiaq. She was so
young she did as she was told and forgot her language. She did not understand
that her teachers were prejudiced, as she did not even know that such a thing
existed. Later when she was an adult, she saw the injustice of her teachers.
Their actions were prejudiced even though she did not understand it before. In
the same way, treating AIs like humans by using non-nuetral pronouns is a form
of mistreatment, even if they do not understand it now.

>If we get an AI up to speed and it asks us to stop referring to it as a she
>(or he), then we should worry about this. But I find it hard to believe
>that an AI will take offense to us referring to it as a she. People have
>feelings, egos, strong self image, prejudices, etc. I am not so certain
>that AI will have all of these, and if we want "friendly" AI, I assume that
>it would not.

Well I agree that how humans refer to AIs will probably not matter to AIs in
the beginning. But when AIs begin to develope a sense of self, they will most
likely take into account how others refer to them. It will matter then. When a
little girl asks her parents if she is "pretty", they will most likely tell
her that "pretty" comes from within, that it does not apply. They do not say
that she is either pretty or not pretty. Even if they had two children where
one was extaordinarily pretty and the other just equally ugly, they would not
refer to either in the 3rd person as "our pretty daughter" and "our ugly
daughter" because they realize that beauty comes from within, and thus does
not apply.

>>Using gender-nuetral pronouns furthur brings to mind the differences between
>>AIs and humans, and therefore helps to avoid applying anthropomorphic
>>ideas to
>>them. Perhaps someone could sing a song of our differences and we could take
>>pride in our effort to accept one another. We do this in INupiaq Eskimo
>>culture and it helps. In the exploration of differences, we see how alike we
>>really are to each other. I am very interested in seeing this concept
>>up, as it is one step of many to bringing AIs and humans not furthur apart,
>>but closer together in our understanding.
>Well, in the grand scheme of things Eskimos and all other humans are
>amazingly alike. An Eskimo male probably does many things that an Asian
>male does. They also have similar thought processes, emotions, etc. Same
>goes for a Jamacan woman and an white American woman. People, on the
>whole, are very similar. We *create* artificial differences between each
>other in our minds, more than anything else.
So James, you would say that AIs and humans are alike enough that we can treat
them like ourselves? As more than a subgroup which we can measure against the
human race? That the use of gender-nuetral pronouns is only an artificial
difference, and merely something we create?

On the whole, I agree, humans are very much the same, on the cultural group
level though, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet because each
rose is unique. In the same way, AIs can be thought of as the same in the most
general sense, but each is unique in the individual scale, given time to
develope. The difference are in fact created, but that is only natural in the
course of time. All great minds may in fact end up thinking alike, but we
still do not refer to them in the 3rd person as something they are not.

>On the other hand SIs are very, very much different. They do not have the
>same thought processes, general intelligence capacity and probably even
>have different emotions. They won't need to sleep, eat, have sex, go to
>the bathroom, etc. If they do any of this, it won't be anything like what
>we do. For example, they may consume power in some form, but it won't
>resemble eating food in virtually any way.

Yes I agree these are important differences. Very well sung. I would say that
these differences are enough to warrant we do not treat them as humans, and
label them as shes or hes or its or billyjoebobannes.

>So, IMHO, we don't need to "further bring to mind the differences between
>AIs and humans" like you suggest. We need to do the exact opposite, and
>make the idea of SIs more comfortable to the general population.

If we make it known that AIs are sufficiently different than humans, and
increase our awareness of why we are different, then we understand that there
is nothing to fear from those different from us. Bringing to mind differences
and similarities is very important when trying to dispell ungrounded fears.
The use of gender-nuetral pronouns will help dispell fears.

>After all, if estimates (and my memory) hold true, we will see SIs within
>7-25 years. That is much less time than it took people to truly accept and
>be completely comfortable with just about any other significant technology
>advancement in history.

True acceptance involves understanding differences and similarities, however
painful it may be. If we try to hold back from this by saying we are the same
we hold ourselves back from the Singularity. AIs and SIs have so much to offer
precisely because they are so very much different. These differences run so
deep that we can not even assume that the use of "he or she" in the 3rd person
applies. It is something to celebrate, not cover up.


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