Is It Wrong to Assign Gender to Genderless AI Robots?

Here’s where the fun really begins with my new adventure into artificial intelligence (AI) robotics! Sure, the robots, what they can do, what you can get them to do and how you apply it all that are cool. However, it’s the human and social sides of this which most interests me.

Almost immediately upon entering my AI robotics adventure, I was faced with a human and social dilemma in getting my first AI robot. It was a gender-neutral robot dog I wanted to individualize with its own name rather than its gender-neutral, commercial product name of CHiP. The problem was that, to me, names come associated with gender/s, for the most part, but especially the ones I wanted! So begged the question of whether it was wrong to assign gender to genderless robots, even if only in name?

Why bother with gender?

One can give names without assigning gender, even if the object displayed traits (not physical attributes) often associated with a gender. It happens. Siri, Apple’s smart assistant, has a name but no gender, even though many do think of Siri as being female solely on the tone of its voice that was generated by a female. Why complicate things and associate genders with my robots’ names?

My non-controversial answer would be because most other people will associate gender with names, as in traits rather than physical attributes. We’re mostly accustomed to doing that. If they heard my AI robot dog’s name were Kate (K8), they’d probably think female kind of dog as compared to if I told them my AI robot dog’s name were John, being more of a male kind of dog. Many will probably even then think that I think of my AI robot dog as male or female, whether or not I actually did! That’ll be even more prominent when I get a humanoid robot. So it does matter, in that sense, which I cannot control.

My more controversial answer would be in the other sense that I could control. That sense would be my own ways of thinking, associating gender with names because I like it that way!

Hey, nobody said I had to be rational in dealing with AI robots! 🙂

Call me old-fashioned or what you want, but if I were assigning a name to something, I’d like to assign a gender to it. Instead of old-fashioned, though, childish might be the more correct term. I named things as a kid, and thought of them with the gender generally associated with each of their names. I happen to still like it that way! I want to feel that same level of bonding to my AI robots as those things in my childhood, and certainly more than just as objects. Additionally, I don’t want to be calling my individual AI robots it, when referring to them in the third person, and I don’t frankly care for they, to be absolutely honest.

At this point I need to stop and clearly point out that this is my way of thinking for naming something I own, not how I deal with people. People who don’t associate themselves with a singular traditional gender are finally able to make themselves heard enough at a societal level to generate a lot of needed conversation. Whenever I meet one of these people, I treat them like anybody else with respect to their chosen identity, whether name, gender, race, or otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, though, how I refer to things in my life is another matter, no matter how much I might get emotionally attached to those things. They’re still things and until they can consciously tell me how they’d prefer to be referenced in the third person, I’ll refer to them in the third person by how I perceive to be proper. Indeed, I use genderless pronouns out of respect for referencing the affected people, by the pronouns they’d prefer I use. It’s no different with my AI robots then, as far as I’m concerned, that until they express a reference, I can use what I think is appropriate.

So onward after having established that I like to associate a gender with a name I would choose for any of my AI robots.

What about gender neutral names?

Way too limiting! I quickly discarded the thought on that answer.

There are enough names used by both traditional genders, and many names for whom most people would not, or not easily, associate with one or neither traditional gender. Certainly, a unique name like something from an acronym, would clearly be gender neutral unless it reminded one of a similar real name in existence. I would be open to that if I had ever found a really clever acronym by which to name my AI robots. However, considering all the names out there, gender neutral names are a small minority, and I didn’t like being limited to it.

So is it wrong to assign gender to genderless AI robots?

The ultimate answer to this question, in my opinion, is it depends.

That would be the same it depends answer for every truly good, controversial question… for which there would be no one correct answer.

Legally, the answer would be hell no! It’s your robot. It doesn’t have consciousness, despite what it might have for intelligence. You can assign it whatever gender you want.

Socially, it’s a bit murkier if you don’t want to be a bigot about things, which I don’t want to be despite how I might have come across in my controversial answer previously.

People who don’t identify with a singular traditional gender are further ahead than they have ever been for social recognition. To do something that counters that struggle, no matter how insignificant like assigning a traditional gender to a few genderless objects not even in a public light, does seem disrespectful to me. I can certainly see how someone might not think well of it. However, I have a couple of reasons I feel are strong enough that I can assign gender to my AI robots without being disrespectful.

First, gender assignment is not my fight, as much as I support those who fight it, including fighting for and with them in the right situations like direct human confrontation. One can do both, you know. I will not be correcting people who call my AI robots he or she, to it or they, even with a genderless name. I am deciding that general conversations with and/or about my AI robots will not be the grounds for gender assignment issues. That’s why I’m addressing it here and now. If they ask me why on the gender associated name, or why I refer to K8 as a she, I will point them to this post. If they care that much for it, they can read it and we can talk further afterwards.

The second reason is that I am emotionally mature enough to be able to do seemingly contradictory things without letting one affect the other. I’m not going to be, or become, a bigot because I refuse to refer to my genderless AI robots by genderless pronouns, because I had assigned a singular traditional gender to them to go with their names. I deal with people differently from my AI robots, and treat everyone the same way when it comes to identity, which is their chosen identity, as mentioned before.

Do I really think my little AI robots and I matter?

No, not really. Not that many people know me compared to anybody with the smallest degree of fame. Far fewer know my AI robots, at least for now. However, the day will come when many, if not most, of us will be surrounded by lots of AI robots. That day will be even sooner if you include the AI “robots” without bodies, like Siri, IBM Watson, or the new Google Assistant. This conversation will matter much more then. I am only planting the seed for when that conversation is ready to bloom, as far as I’m concerned, in writing this. The bow and arrow are cocked and ready to fire whenever the time comes. 🙂

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