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AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach
This is a robot.
IT'S NOT ENOUGH

It’s time for robots to have their own pronouns

By Mike Murphy

“Did you confirm the meeting with Janet and Amy?”

“Yes, with Janet, but who’s Amy?”

“She’s our meeting scheduling bot. I mean it is. I mean they? I don’t know.”

It’s hard to talk about robots. They’re not human, but they’re starting to look and act more like us. They are objects, much like cars, or trees or laptops, but we give them names. They’re often gendered human names—tech company x.ai called its AI-based scheduling assistant Amy Ingram, for example. Even when they’re not human names, like Boston Dynamics’ Spot and Atlas robots, it still gets confusing to refer to them by their names after a while.

Robots today are more than just tools like a power drill or a hoverboard. They have agency, sarcasm, and apparently, emotions.

First, robots post a challenge on a semantic level. While bots have all been programmed by a human to act these ways, it still can feel slightly odd to refer to things that act like we do as “it.” We call boats and cars “she,” and they can’t come up with jokes, or hold a conversation with us—well, apart from that one car. One solution is to only refer to robots by their names, but after a few sentences, it starts to feel like you’re reading an elementary school book:

See Spot run. See Spot play with Cosmo. See Spot and Atlas. It runs and it walks.

If there’s more than one robot in the story, especially if you’re trying to refer to them in the third person, things get even more confusing. For example, if you were talking about a few humans, you might have a set of sentences like this:

Jeff and Jane are both athletes, but she can run a lot faster than he can.

That wouldn’t work with two “it” robots, or if you were talking about a mix of robots and humans. You can meander your way through longer sentences to clarify who is doing what, but it might be easier to just have separate pronouns—perhaps even gendered ones—to distinguish humanlike robots from robots.

Most popular names from Roomba 980s
Rosie
R2-D2
Alfred
Hazel
Wall-E
Ruby
Alice
Robi
Bob
Robbie

iRobot, the company that makes the Roomba line of robot vacuums, recently sent Quartz a list of the most popular names that owners have chosen for their newest robot. All but two of the names in the top 10 are human names, although the most popular name likely was chosen because of a fictional robot with the same name. Looking at the list, you can imagine a future where robots are things we actually talk to and interact with in our lives, where we’re going to need to distinguish between Rosie the housekeeper bot, Alfred the bot-butler and Rosie and Alfred, the couple that lives down the road.

Beyond semantics, the question of personhood is becoming more and more central. We want to interact with robots on a human level because that’s what makes us human. As robots take on more tasks generally done by humans, we’ll find ourselves slipping into traditional pronouns. Is x.ai’s Amy Ingram a “she”? It has a full human name, and even receives notes and gifts from humans as thanks for scheduling meetings. What about the burgeoning field of sex bots? It seems odd to think about such intimate and private conversations happening with a soulless robot, even if they are.

Reuters/Tyrone Siu
What do we call Google’s robot?

Here’s what I propose: New pronouns that cover “male” and “female” robots—these could be something like “rhe” and “rer,” and “ris” and “rers” (imagine those monograms on matching towel sets). You could even throw in a “rit” for genderless or non-humanoid robots to help distinguish them from other objects in a sentence. Then there could be “rem” and “rey” for a group of robots. That should help with some of the confusion, even if they’re difficult to pronounce.

I’m not the first to propose this idea—the concept of genderless pronouns for humans, and other things that can think, has been around for a while—but the urgency for which we’ll likely need them is on the rise as more robots enter the home. The concept of a robot puttering around your house while you’re out has gone from complete science fiction to something that’s right round the corner in a matter of years.

And who knows—in the same way that some are proposing that we’ll eventually just refer to self-driving cars as “cars,” perhaps when we make enough big breakthroughs and create true artificial intelligence and robots that look like us, we’ll just refer to them as we would ourselves. Dennis Mortensen, the CEO of x.ai, told Quartz that those who are working in AI ”have to make a decision upfront” as to whether to humanize their work. And the more that they do imbue them with human traits, the more we’ll come to think of them as we do ourselves, Mortensen anticipates. “This new paradigm will be delivered in natural language,” he said.

Mortensen drew a correlation back to Google’s most recent robot creation, Atlas. In a recent video, a human can be seeing pushing a box away from Atlas every time it (rit?) gets close to picking it up, and even pushing the robot over. “I’m sure you empathized with the robot just for a second—that’s not the way to treat another thing,” Mortensen said. “Just because we can see this is a machine won’t mean we won’t apply some level of human empathy to the machine.”

Mortensen envisions a future where we will extend our humanity directly onto robots, and just use human pronouns for them. But at least for the short term, where robots are still clearly quite different than us, perhaps it’s worth coming up with a solution that sits somewhere between the soulless, genderless “it” and the “he” and “she” that we’re used to. Because whatever is ahead in artificial intelligence won’t be like anything we’re used to.