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I'm editing a technical text about autonomous systems. I feel the following sentence is anthropomorphizing a machine and also introduces some confusion because it can be easily misread as talking about the machine operator knowledge:

A clear separation of control and protection is possible if the safety-critical protection function can be specified and implemented without having any knowledge of the workings of the control function.

It might just be coming back from a holiday, but I can't for the life of me think of a suitable alternative to talking about the machine having knowledge. Does anyone have any suggestions? Or... am I overthinking it, since now we have fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning that constantly use these terms?

(Note that there is also work to be done on the rest of the sentence since it is wordy, but I want to address this issue first!)

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    This bit sounds like it is about software, specifically object-oriented design. "Knowledge" and other mildly anthropomorphic terms are common in that area. It is not out of place for me. Who is going to be reading that technical text? Fellow engineers? End users? At least for the first group, the terminology is fine imho.
    – KeizerHarm
    Jan 3 '20 at 16:15
  • Welcome to Writing.SE! I think this is on-topic here, as you're asking about word choice, but requests for more general writing critiques are off-topic here, so we can't help you rewrite the rest of the sentence. Hope that's okay!
    – F1Krazy
    Jan 3 '20 at 16:17
  • Is it the machine specifically that shouldn't have the knowledge? As written, this sounds to me as though it's referring to the knowledge of the developer implementing the function.
    – AmaiKotori
    Jan 3 '20 at 16:26
  • @AmaiKotori That's exactly the "confusion" that OP is referring to in the question. I'm writing an answer that hopefully addresses both issues.
    – F1Krazy
    Jan 3 '20 at 16:27
  • @F1Krazy Thanks! Yep, I didn't mean to ask for help on rewriting the sentence, I just wanted comments on the word choice thing and didn't want input coming in on the rest of it :)
    – FMH
    Jan 3 '20 at 16:32
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I don't see a problem with the use of the word "knowledge" in this context, but I do agree that there's some ambiguity about who should not have that knowledge - the function, or the person implementing it. That ambiguity can be eliminated thusly:

A clear separation of control and protection is possible if the safety-critical protection function can be specified and implemented without it having any knowledge of the workings of the control function.

It should be pretty clear that "it" refers to the function.

If you're dead set on removing the anthropomorphization, however, I think the most sensible alternative would be "information":

A clear separation of control and protection is possible if the safety-critical protection function can be specified and implemented without it having any information about the workings of the control function.

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  • Thank you! I try to move forward with the evolution of language, so I'm inclined to stick with knowledge now. That said, there is a sentence later in the text where information makes much more sense, so that's a big help! I'm kicking myself for not thinking of that one sooner :P
    – FMH
    Jan 3 '20 at 16:36
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An alternative is "information".

I would say "without requiring any information on the specific workings of the control function".

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