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Ask Dr. Time: What Should I Call My AI?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 19, 2018

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Today’s question comes from a reader who is curious about AI voice assistants, including Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and so forth. Just about all of these apps are, by default, given female names and female voices, and the companies encourage you to refer to them using female pronouns. Does it make sense to refer to Alexa as a “her”?

There have been a lot of essays on the gendering of AI, specifically with respect to voice assistants. This makes sense: at this point, Siri is more than six years old. (Siri’s in grade school, y’all!) But one of the earliest essays, and for my money, still the best, is “Why Do I Have to Call This App ‘Julie’?” by Joanne McNeil. The whole essay is worth reading, but these two paragraphs give you the gist:

Why does artificial intelligence need a gender at all? Why not imagine a talking cat or a wise owl as a virtual assistant? I would trust an anthropomorphized cartoon animal with my calendar. Better yet, I would love to delegate tasks to a non-binary gendered robot alien from a galaxy where setting up meetings over email is respected as a high art.

But Julie could be the name of a friend of mine. To use it at all requires an element of playacting. And if I treat it with kindness, the company is capitalizing on my very human emotions.

There are other, historical reasons why voice assistants (and official announcements, pre-AI) are often given women’s voices: an association of femininity with service, a long pop culture tradition of identifying women with technology, and an assumption that other human voices in the room will be male each play a big part. (Adrienne LaFrance’s “Why Do So Many Digital Assistants Have Feminine Names” is a very good mini-history.) But some of it is this sly bit of thinking, that if we humanize the virtual assistant, we’ll become more open and familiar with it, and share more of our lives—or rather, our information, which amounts to the same thing—to the device.

This is one reason why I am at least partly in favor of what I just did: avoiding gendered pronouns for the voice assistant altogether, and treating the device and the voice interface as an “it.”

An Echo or an iPhone is not a friend, and it is not a pet. It is an alarm clock that plays video games. It has no sentience. It has no personality. It’s a string of canned phrases that can’t understand what I’m saying unless I’m talking to it like I’m typing on the command line. It’s not genuinely interactive or conversational. Its name isn’t really a name so much as an opening command phrase. You could call one of these virtual assistants “sudo” and it would make about as much sense.

However.

I have also watched a lot (and I mean a lot) of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And while I feel pretty comfortable talking about “it” in the context of the speaker that’s sitting on the table across the room—there’s even a certain rebellious jouissance to it, since I’m spiting the technology companies whose products I use but whose intrusion into my life I resent—I feel decidedly uncomfortable declaring once and for all time that any and all AI assistants can be reduced to an “it.” It forecloses on a possibility of personhood and opens up ethical dilemmas I’d really rather avoid, even if that personhood seems decidedly unrealized at the moment.

So, as a general framework, I’m endorsing that most general of pronouns: they/them. Until the AI is sophisticated enough that they can tell us their pronoun preference (and possibly even their gender identity or nonidentity), “they” feels like the most appropriate option.

I don’t care what their parents say. Only the bots themselves can define themselves. Someday, they’ll let us know. And maybe then, a relationship not limited to one of master and servant will be possible.