“AI” and the importance of “Neuter”

An article by Simone Cosimi on Repubblica.it re-sings the old refrain of “the computer is stronger than a human playing chess” in the variant “Go” (which is a Chinese game, but that the journalist qualifies with Japanese terms about a Korean player, despite being the game known and played for centuries in Japan and Korea).

A semantic rigour aside, that a computer – or better, a software, can be “stronger” than a human being – is hardly a news. Everyone who plays chess knows that, having honed their skills with the many programs, some really excellent, available to the general public. As it is hardly a news the fact that the software is so advanced as to put in difficulty professionals or even champions.

But from here, to say – or to suggest – that we are dealing with a system that is more “intelligent” than Man, there is a huge gap. It would be like saying that since a mechanical arm makes perfect welds that no human being can replicate, it should be considered as able to “think”.

The problem, here, is the absence – or rather the disappearance – of the “neuter” genre in the language, because the trick of the narrative about “artificial” intelligence is in the words. Software does neither “learn” or “understand” but simply modifies its functioning at various levels of autonomy.

But to express these concepts without resorting to technical language one must necessarily take for granted the limitation of the “ordinary” way to use it, i.e. that it is not made to express complex concepts (proof of this is, for example, the use of the word “transcendental” in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, included in at least thirteen different meanings). Consequently, in the vulgarization of scientific issues it is inevitable to resort to simplifications that, however, alter the sense and meaning of the message.

In other words, if technically describing the result of this notorious game of Go I use the female gender to identify the subject of the action (Google’s AlphaGO), I am not giving it subjectivity. But the effect of the “brute” use of the signifier is precisely this, and therefore a message is transmitted that, in the passage from the fact to the reader through the writer -journalist, in the case in point – changes its meaning or acquires another one that is not rationally perceived but even more evocative: a software is a subject and has subjectivity.

If we spoke Latin again, this problem would not have arisen because the use of the neuter genre would have immediately made the reader understand that we are not talking about humanity, but – only – about a brilliant technological creation.

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