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I have a sentient AI in a story. He sentience aspect is mostly an unexpected result and some characters in the story do not believe it. When they refer to the AI, should they use the "it" pronoun to do so? There are also characters who believe that the AI is sentient. The AI is not gendered. Should those characters use "it" or "she"/"he" or "they" to refer to the AI? In this particular case, I have the benefit of using second person pronouns(you) as most such conversations happen one to one with the AI and the corresponding character in most cases.

There is also the option to directly use the AI's name instead of pronouns. But repeatedly doing so is unnatural.

  • IT, but maybe it decides it wants to be called a gender. In The Cybernetic Samurai, the AI's had two genders depending on how they were created. Or it may decide it is a collective, and be called THEY. Or, alternatively, you can make a point of always calling it something specific, like all AI's are HAL. There is no absolute. – DWKraus Oct 26 at 13:31
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    The way other characters refer to the AI reveals something about them. The way the AI refers to itself reveals something about it. And the way the narration refers to the AI reveals something about the story's narrative framing (probably a little bit about how you see pronouns, but a clinical hard sci-fi could use "it" less controversially than an Atlas Shrugged/The Lord of the Flies-style clear political allegory, for example). If you figure those elements out, you can figure small details like which pronouns to use from there. – Kevin Oct 26 at 22:22
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In Dickens' David Copperfield, the protagonist, David, is given many nicknames by the other characters. These nicknames do not reflect aspects of young David's personality or actions, but they do tell the reader something about the characters who bestow those nicknames.

I think you might approach this question in a similar fashion. To those who do not believe the AI is sentient, the AI is an "it", while those who do credit the AI with sentience will also bestow on it a gender of their choosing. To a female character, the AI may be a "she/her", while a male character may call the AI "he/him" and a trans character (if you have one in your story) may refer to the AI as "they".

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You are righting a story here, not a paper, yes? So I would argue the question might not be, "what pronoun should I always use for this AI?" but rather, I would say that much depends on the characters in your story, their personalities, backgrounds, beliefs, and inclinations. THEY are the ones who are going to be interacting with, and referring to, said AI, after all. Everyone is aware that the AI has no sex, of course, since it is a machine. But we refer to sexless objects by gendered pronouns all the time. A very common example would be the way ships are often referred to as "she". For a closer example, take Siri. Siri is a machine, an "it", if you will, but because the voice "sounds" female, people often say "she" and "her" when talking about Siri.

Are (non sentient) AIs common in your world, and if so, how do people usually refer to them? Do they use "he" or "she" and so on based on the AI's voice or some other arbitrary criteria (is the voice completely sexless too? If so then it would probably depend on a given person's perception). Do most people in society just refer to AIs as "it"? Or is it entirely different from person to person with no societal standard; people just call them what they choose? Whatever the "norm" is in your society will affect how many of your characters refer to your AI, whether they are aware it is sentient or not.

This is also affected by individual characters' traits. Some will fall outside the societal norm, or come from backgrounds with an entirely different norm. The way each of them thinks about the AI may vary widely. For instance, if your AI "sounds" female like Siri, and one of your characters believes it is sentient and another does not, the one who doesn't believe it may say "it" to emphasize that they think it is nothing more than an object, while the one believes it is sentient may call it "she" specifically because they find the depersonification implied by "it" to be offensive, even though they are aware that "she" isn't completely accurate either.

Finally, there is, of course, the AI itself. It's sentient, so it is entitled to an opinion here. Does it have a preference? If so, it may simply tell people how it wants to be called. In which case, maybe you can tell who actually "believes" in its sentience by who refers to it in the way it requests. Or maybe it doesn't care, (and it's very possible a sentient AI may find the whole sex and gender stuff humans are so obsessed with to be silly and it could care less) and so it lets people call it whatever as long as they aren't disrespecting it. The answer to this last part will probably help determine how you, if you write as an omniscient narrator or from the AIs perspective, refer to it in narration. When narrating from a given character's perspective, you would probably refer to the AI using the pronoun that character would use. (if you use a single narrator, it could be an interesting way to show how they view the AI. Maybe at first they aren't buying that the AI is really sentient, and their narration refers to the AI as "it" and/or other objectifying terms, but later on you can tell when they begin to believe it because there is a change in the way they think about the AI, and the pronouns used in their narration change along with that.)

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DWKraus touched on this with their comment: if the AI is truly sentient and self-aware, it's probably capable of choosing a set of pronouns for itself. I see two ways you could then work that into the story: either the characters explicitly ask the AI for its pronouns, much as you might when talking to a non-binary human, or the characters unknowingly use the wrong pronoun (e.g. "it"), and the AI corrects them ("Actually, my pronouns are...").

As for what the AI's pronouns should actually be, I'd say that, given the AI is genderless, "it" or "they" would be your safest choices. "He" or "she" for a genderless AI may confuse readers, and neopronouns like "ze/zir" may not be taken seriously by a certain subset of readers. You can have the AI choose to go by whatever pronouns it likes, though; it's your character.

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I think 'it' or 'AI's name' is probably the best bet. If you reference AI's name once in a conversation, you can then switch to calling it 'it' as long as it is clear that 'it' refers to the AI. If this gets in the way of your dialogue, maybe just go by the name. in Person of Interest, they called their AI 'The Machine' or 'Samaritan'(there were two) and that worked out well.

If you want to, you could call the AI a she(also done in Person of Interest). A lot of big things people make(boats, planes, etc) get referred to as feminine objects in speech. Yes, the AI technically is genderless, but people do stuff like this sometimes.

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How a human refers to the AI reveals how willing they are to accept the AI's sentience. If the human views the AI as a pure mechanism (in the same category as a cellphone), the person would probably use "it". At the other end of the spectrum, if the person fully accepts the AI as a sentient entity (as I accept all account-holders here on SE to be :) ), the person would probably use "they/them", or the AI's self-identified gender (if any). (Consider using this as a cue to the reader about each character's acceptance of the AI.)

As a point of comparison for non-human interaction, reflect on how how people refer to animals, based on their proximity to human behaviour and culture. For most people, their pet's gender is important, and part of their of their emotional connection. Whereas, for people who eat meat, the gender of the farmed animal may be a concept without content.

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