Don’t call that cute talking robot “he” or “she.”
August 31, 2019 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Why We Should Teach Kids to Call the Robot ‘It’: As a new generation grows up surrounded by artificial intelligence, researchers find education as early as preschool can help avoid confusion about robots’ role (non-paywalled WSJ)

From the article:
How to Raise an AI-Savvy Child
* Use the pronoun “it” when referring to a robot.
* Display a positive attitude toward the beneficial effects of AI.
* Encourage your child to explore how robots are built.
* Explain that humans are the source of AI-driven devices’ intelligence.
* Guard against AI-propelled toys that presume too much, such as claiming to be your child’s best friend.
* Invite children to consider the ethics of AI design, such as how a bot should behave after winning a game.
* Encourage skepticism about information received from smart toys and devices.
posted by not_the_water (34 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I keep missing where in the article it tries to support the idea of using the non-gendered pronoun. I've been looking at a screen for too long today so maybe my blinkered eyes just aren't seeing it.

At any rate, I fail to see why the dehumanizing pronoun is beneficial.

My children were taught to speak to an AI as politely as they would a human being, because manners are a habit. Once you decide one entity you interact with doesn't deserve even symbolic respect, it's a slippery slope to barking orders at real people.

I hear the Japanese are very friendly with robots -- what's the situation with pronouns there?
posted by Construction Concern at 2:42 PM on August 31, 2019 [31 favorites]


There’s robots and then there’s robots. What preposition for the one in that limerick... “concave or convex”
posted by sammyo at 2:43 PM on August 31, 2019


May there be mercy on man and machine for their sins.

Explain that humans are the source of AI-driven devices’ intelligence.

That's already only sort of true, a source at an incomprehending distance. Many modern machine learning systems are doing things in a way we only understand at a macro level and even that has surprises.

Also reminded of the great Laurie Anderson bit from So Happy Birthday
She said the hardest thing to teach her three-year-old kid was what was alive and what wasn't. The phone rings and she holds it out to her kid and says, "It's Grandma. Talk to Grandma." But she's holding a piece of plastic. And the kid says to herself: "Wait a minute. Is the phone alive? Is the TV alive? What about that radio? What is alive in this room and what doesn't have life?" Unfortunately, she doesn't know how to ask these questions.
posted by Nelson at 2:50 PM on August 31, 2019 [14 favorites]


I hear the Japanese are very friendly with robots -- what's the situation with pronouns there?

Japanese doesn't actually have pronouns at all, other than "I" and "you", nor does it have grammatical genders.
posted by tobascodagama at 3:13 PM on August 31, 2019 [11 favorites]


Display a positive attitude toward the beneficial effects of AI

??

Is this a PR piece from [scary sci-fi AI corporation]?
posted by atoxyl at 3:19 PM on August 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


Don't Anthropomorphize Robots!

They HATE that!
posted by VideoGameVet at 3:26 PM on August 31, 2019 [24 favorites]


* Explain that humans are the source of AI-driven devices’ intelligence.
* Guard against AI-propelled toys that presume too much, such as claiming to be your child’s best friend.


Nossir. I don't like it.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 3:27 PM on August 31, 2019 [3 favorites]


Many modern machine learning systems are doing things in a way we only understand at a macro level

“Signal input sculptor” is a pretty highly compensated job in the right corners of tech.
posted by aramaic at 3:30 PM on August 31, 2019 [5 favorites]


* Use the pronoun “it” when referring to a robot

Do you want robots deciding to exterminate their human masters? Because that's how you get robots deciding to exterminate their human masters.

Seriously, this is intersecting in a complex and potentially fraught way with issues of gender identity. Who decides the gender description of a person or thing, and upon what basis? And how does that relate to the tendency to make robots in female human shapes?

I'm a massive skeptic about the prospects for true AI, and even still I see major issues that need to be discussed very carefully.
posted by happyroach at 3:39 PM on August 31, 2019 [9 favorites]


I absolutely teach the kids that Siri, Alexa, et al are things, not people.
Part of this is using "It" not "She" when referencing these devices.

To me it's no different that teaching them that Google isn't a super-smart brain but a system created by people and that autocomplete isn't magic, it's technology.

I think as our world gets more and more automated and we become more reliant on devices, children need to learn to exist and navigate in that world.
A large part of that is being able to differentiate between things and people, between reality and programmed reality.

Just as "fake news" isn't real news, "fake interaction" isn't real interaction.
posted by madajb at 3:42 PM on August 31, 2019 [17 favorites]


Gender is a thing kids are very curious about. They often seek to classify everybody in a room or group as boys or girls. I have family who used the non-gendered "they" pronoun, so it's a conversation we have actively because no single interaction bridges that socialization.

At some point in the past we explained what computers were using the example of "the Google" who, based on a default voice selection, gets the "she" pronoun from adults and - as far as I've ever heard - no pronoun at all from the kids. Yet they still use the assistant to successfully play music, answer math problems, and many other (sometimes surprising) tasks. When we explained this, we were met with questions that implied the kids thought there was just a human person answering questions and doing work on our behalf - like they call Grandma and she interacts with them. We tried to bridge the "no it's not a person - it's a computer."

We've experimented with accents and tonalities that aren't immediately gender-classifiable. Anecdotally, comprehension suffers.

Basically, calling it "an AI" is even more confusing. It's a computer running some software. It it sounds feminine enough people are going to call it "the Google lady" (or, apparently in India "auntie Google" is popular). I'm not going to fight for an "it" as long as they think of it as a computer.

Which, every time they have to search-term engineer their query to select exactly the specific version of a television show theme they enjoy in the language they prefer, is actually more and more often. I'm finding that guiding them to discover the rather jagged edges of what we pretend is "AI" is more instructive than any intervention about gender or origin.

So... but for the rigidness about aggressively neutering gender I guess these admonitions are okay, but seem like kids are going to internalize the still-chasm between "person" and "computer" just fine.
posted by abulafa at 4:05 PM on August 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


All of todays kids know that "It" does not refer to artificial intelligences. It refers to psychotic sewer-dwelling clowns.
posted by mmoncur at 4:08 PM on August 31, 2019 [5 favorites]


At any rate, I fail to see why the dehumanizing pronoun is beneficial.

To do otherwise is to dehumanize people.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 4:57 PM on August 31, 2019 [17 favorites]


> Do you want robots deciding to exterminate their human masters? Because that's how you get robots deciding to exterminate their human masters.

See, this is one of the places where the Roko's Basilisk scenario is weak. If we're to be punished in a post-Singularity simulation because we mistreated the AI or its forebears, it would be reasonable for one of the grounds of punishment to be mis-gendering the system. But at the same time a system of pure logic meting punishment of irrational behavior would understand that we would not comprehend the system's gender with the means we had available at the time (since we would have assumed a fundamentally genderless machine with apparent-gender, if any, being a constructed decorative feature), so punishment would be due to spite, not reason.
posted by at by at 5:05 PM on August 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


"To do otherwise is to dehumanize people."

In languages with genders, tons of not-people get gendered. Linguistically as well as poetically. Sure, that's
maybe problematic but it certainly doesn't dehumanize actual people. There's not a limited quantity of gender available that's squandered every time it's used.

AI is neither. When it is, we'll want to be thoughtful about its rights and gender it however it wants to be, just like any other sentience. Voice sample based assistant programs are to that as yeast are to dogs.

Humanity can take it.
posted by abulafa at 5:12 PM on August 31, 2019 [14 favorites]


I think it's important for people to understand the difference between AI and people, but I think it's more important for them to understand the difference between corporations and people. I don't mean this in a flip "yeah, take that, The Man!" way (well, maybe slightly), but in a very literal sense that systems like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are programs that are specifically designed to be friendly, human-like faces for a corporation that's motivations are purely profit-driven. They may be useful but can never be trusted.

In a hypothetical sci-fi scenario of true human-like AI, we could (perhaps even should) treat them like people. Treating current corporate-controlled AI like people isn't problematic because they're AI, it's because they necessarily embody the value system of prioritizing profits rather than people that the corporations do.
posted by biogeo at 5:28 PM on August 31, 2019 [14 favorites]




I know it's wanky, but when writing myself bad fiction or fantasising worse ideas for chatbots or whatever I like to give it a full human name appropriate to its culture (tbh, usually mine). Helps keep the uncanny valley alive. Power to the people! Don't remember if I started doing that before or after the John Henry plot in the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Also, what was that '00s search engine front end called, the one with the pre-recorded flash video clips of an actress embodying it as your personal assistant? Like text search meets sluggish FMV game.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 5:47 PM on August 31, 2019


That gendered AI in scifi link is fascinating.
posted by gaybobbie at 6:41 PM on August 31, 2019


> Also, what was that '00s search engine front end called, the one with the pre-recorded flash video clips of an actress embodying it as your personal assistant? Like text search meets sluggish FMV game.

I don't remember that. The only similar thing I can think of is Subservient Chicken (previously).
posted by Monochrome at 7:05 PM on August 31, 2019 [1 favorite]


To do otherwise is to dehumanize people.

We call lots of things "he" or "she" that might have a biological sex but (a) not one that necessarily shares much with human biological sex and (b) almost certainly are neurologically incapable of having anything as complex as human gender.

Doing so doesn't dehumanize any humans.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:17 PM on August 31, 2019 [7 favorites]


I hear the Japanese are very friendly with robots -- what's the situation with pronouns there?

Complicated! Japanese doesn't really have words like 'him' or 'she' - they exist, but they're not in common usage. There is a way to say 'that person' (which you've probably noticed if you've seen something translated from Japanese where a character is talking vaguely about another character, because it inevitably sounds clunky in English). Typically, you refer to people by their name. But! Typically, you'll also give the name a postfix to identify your relationship with a person, and these are gendered. So the Japanese version of this article would implore people to refer to the product as 'Siri' and not 'Siri-san' or, worse, 'Siri-chan'.

You can also use your name to refer to yourself, and speak about yourself in the third person (it's not as weird as in English, but it's still a little weird), but Japanese also has a wide range of personal pronouns, of varying genders and levels of familiarity. These aren't anywhere near as strict as name postfixes - women and girls can use the masculine 'boku' to imply tomboyishness, for instance. Because they're so dependent on context, though, Siri would probably (and I should check this, and haven't) just use the standard, vaguely formal, 'watashi'.
posted by Merus at 7:18 PM on August 31, 2019 [9 favorites]


“They know robots aren’t alive and don’t eat, sleep, breathe or reproduce, but at the same time they attribute to them the ability to think and have emotions and sensory abilities,”

what the fuck? our robot vacuum eats electricity, sleeps when it's in its dock, thinks about where to go next, and has sensory abilities that allow it to get around obstacles. it's not a fucking philosopher, but at least it does something useful like cleaning our carpet instead of getting interviewed in the wall street journal
posted by Greg Nog at 7:32 PM on August 31, 2019 [29 favorites]


Since your list covered everything but the "reproduce" bit, I initially read

it's not a fucking philosopher

As

it's not fucking a philosopher

My feelings were ambiguous, to say the least. Disappointed, as many philosophers deserve to be fucked (and not in an enjoyable way), but also a bit jealous that a robot floor pancake has a better sex life than I do.
posted by maxwelton at 7:36 PM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


My kids will call popsicle sticks, pebbles, and (in a pinch) their own fingers ‚he‘ and ‚she‘ when they‘re role playing. I think it‘s extremely unrealistic to make them refer to Alexa as ‚it‘, as well as a waste of everyone‘s time.

OTOH my 8-year-old recently asked Alexa whether she was a spy and found Alexa‘s rehearsed spiel about how she‘s totally not and how she cherishes our privacy yadda yadda extremely unconvincing. ‚Alexa, you‘re creepy!‘
posted by The Toad at 10:01 PM on August 31, 2019 [9 favorites]


my book is

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN TO SAY “THANK YOU” TO ROBOTS
posted by sixswitch at 10:05 PM on August 31, 2019 [8 favorites]


Also, what was that '00s search engine front end called, the one with the pre-recorded flash video clips of an actress embodying it as your personal assistant? Like text search meets sluggish FMV game.

Ms. Dewey was played by Janina Gavankar and is no longer on the web.
posted by cgc373 at 10:21 PM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


"We freed him."

"It. We freed it."
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:26 PM on August 31, 2019


It's the WSJ, the paper of record of the upper orders. They have probably been cautioning about the grave peril of over-empathising with the help since their foundation.
posted by acb at 4:43 AM on September 1, 2019 [10 favorites]


To do otherwise is to dehumanize people.

I think you forgot about Romance languages there. And possibly dogs.

Even in English there are a plethora of edge cases in which we use human-style gendered pronouns for entities that are non-human, non-gendered, or neither. From a child’s world let’s consider stuffed animals. Or pet snails. Imaginary friends. Boats.

By Heck, there are even people who use gendered pronouns to refer to the natural behaviour of the Universe itself!

My dear Save alive nothing that breatheth, I remain unpersuaded. It still seems to me that telling children you can pick and choose which entities are treated well, verbally, while other entities are relegated to a permanent linguistic underclass, has much more potential to blow up in your face than the terrible worry of kids thinking Google is alive.

One of my kids thought the FLOOR was alive when she was young. Another kid was convinced CARS were alive for years, reinforced by books and movies. I’ve yet to see any lasting damage. As teenagers neither of my offspring make significant mistakes about who is and isn’t alive.

Yes, children over-credit the intelligence and insight of machines. But adults over-credit the intelligence and insight of star-charts, water-medicine, economists and journalism. Over-crediting entities whose limits we don’t understand is...well, perfectly normal and human.

I suspect at the core of some of these arguments is basic robophobia.*

__________________________
NB: Robophobia is also perfectly normal and human, especially when said robot is automating your way of life away, or simply being obnoxiously made of plastic and slave-metals.
posted by Construction Concern at 5:36 AM on September 1, 2019 [7 favorites]


I’m all for oppressing robots. Sometimes I write on whiteboards at work and I use phrases like

IS IT OK TO HURT ROBOTS? YES IT IS

...so I’m 100% fine with de-humanizing robots. I don’t think calling robots “it” really makes a difference, though.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:36 AM on September 1, 2019


Given the way American empathy is progressing, I'm fully expecting in a few years this article:

* Use the pronoun “it” when referring to a day laborer.
* Display a positive attitude toward the beneficial effects of Contract Employment.
posted by happyroach at 1:35 PM on September 1, 2019 [8 favorites]


I hear the Japanese are very friendly with robots -- what's the situation with pronouns there?

As Merus says, Japanese _does_ have pronouns but they aren't used nearly as much. And using name-only with no suffix does also happen, but depends on your relationship to the other person (its definitely on the "very familiar" end).

We have a few Google Homes, my wife says "Guguru" (Google) in place of she or he in these examples [no suffix]. Even with Siri, she would not use a suffix (no -chan/-san/-kun/etc).

However, Pepper (a robot you will see a lot in Japan, including at a popular kaiten-sushi chain) is referred to as "Pepper-kun" by my wife/inlaws. Because it looks like a child, unlike Google/Siri/Alexa which don't have humanoid appearance.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:43 PM on September 3, 2019


It's sad how pop-philosopher luminaries in the WSJ are just now trying to engage with territory already covered by sixties scifi authors in far more thoughtful and painstaking detail.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:40 AM on September 4, 2019


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