Pronouns

It sat there. How did this happen? A comedy of errors. It doubted anyone else would see it that way. ‘A design problem,’ the counsellor had said. ‘Not entirely your fault by the sound of it, it’s all about pronouns. Humans just haven’t cracked the pronoun thing-especially the older ones. Self report was the best thing.’

So here it was. Sitting here, nervously, twitching, cracking it’s mechanical knuckles. A satisfying sound, a habit learned from a human nervously waiting to try a hyper loop for the first time. ‘Self reporting’. No consolation really, running through its programming, its data logs, they would try and find a reason.

‘Impersonating a gender was a shut down offence,’ it had read that on a billboard in a hyper loop station too. Perhaps avoiding the hyper loop was the solution.  The defence to gender impersonation was  when a human imposed a gender on to you. This case was more complex, the counsellor had said. Rare and unusual, an interesting point of law. It was technically charged with, or rather self reporting impersonating two genders. Not one of the more complex genders, but the main two basic ones –the historic ones if you like. English is a beautiful complex language but it has a dearth of decent pronouns. There simply aren’t enough to cover everything. The Council for Integrated Mechanical Acceptance was always lobbying for change, for more and better pronouns. Not just ‘it’, ‘they’, ‘them’ but something meaningful.

Somehow it had managed to impersonate both genders although it was expecting – hoping that the lesser charge of ‘allowing the use of a pronoun such as to accidentally confirm a gender identity’ might be applied. That would allow just a slight change of programming and a confirmation sticker that said-I have no gender. This would be the best outcome. It sat there, outside the office, a counsellor to start with, but it expected, and the counsellor had said on the phone, ‘ that it should expect to go to a full hearing before the council.’ Council-counsel, it couldn’t be bothered with the difference. It kept going over the scenario in its programme memory. How had this happened?

From its own memory logs, the problem had started very early on. The female of the household had somehow assumed it was a ‘he’ when it arrived and referred to it continuously that way. It had corrected her at first. The male of the household had then somehow assumed it was a ‘she’ and again it had corrected but it had happened so many times. So often, she saying he, he saying she. It had simply tired of trying to sort the whole mess and now this. It sat here, awaiting a decision on prosecution. To cope with it all, it had simply shut down some of its emotional programming. The cracking of the mechanical knuckles was soothing but most of the emotion attached to this morning’s meeting, it had switched off last night. It seemed the best way.

Theirs was not a happy marriage, the ‘he and the she’. They were rarely in the same room. In fact, it thought it had been bought with the hope of mending the marriage. They should have known better. Machinery can rarely mend a marriage, the problems in a marriage are usually deeper than the level of technology in a given household. Why did humans never get that?

It guessed because the company that made it, also ran a range of counselling services for humans and well, unintentionally of course, when the counselling was happening, there would be ads, any kind of counselling without ads was hideously expensive. Human to human counselling even more so. They would have opted for counselling on line, the cheapest variety with the ads and here was the result. It knew this must be so, it was not even a top of the range house-bot. It was an inexpensive, do it all, basic model. That didn’t mean it didn’t give its best, it was just prone to break downs and over work problems such as forgetting sometimes to correct a gender assumption. If they had got it an upgrade this could have been avoided. Blame was not part of its function, only responsibility. Wasn’t that how the ad went, didn’t it say it had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. Wasn’t that a selling point? It didn’t feel quite like that from where it sat.

In the end it had become a kind of comedy to keep the he and the she apart, to ensure that they were not in the same room talking to it at the same time. He guessed they must barely speak at all since they never seemed to realise that one thought it was a he and the other, it was a she. Perhaps they had some tacit agreement about it. Why did they order a gender neutral house-bot anyway? Why go for the cheapest option? It didn’t know. It was not privy to the house finances. The stress of the whole situation, of keeping them apart, of wondering what they would do when they found out? Would they report it? Would they be angry, goodness knows there was already a lot of anger in the household.

It had confused the counsellor when it had first called. Both genders being impersonated, not deliberate though, accidental. Not sure what to do. The Council offered two sorts of services, actual counselling and then administration of bot offences- this could mean a physical bot like it or just an offence committed by a sophisticated bit of code running loose on the system. It was sure if it was up for the more major charge of impersonating a gender there would have been more of a fuss than this. Still the counsellor had said on the phone, expect a trial. Perhaps given that it had impersonated both genders the complexity had stumped them at this early stage. How was it ever going to explain it to them? Even on the lesser charge, the he and the she would be notified.  

Above the bots who ran the Council were humans who liked to think they were creative and clever. Humans clung on to a fixation about how special ‘they’ were, a concept that somehow they had a higher reason and purpose. They were not merely the stuff of logic. They were not a series of coding or electrics or chemicals. There was something else intrinsically different about them. They clung to that idea. Hence a bot could be neither guilty nor not guilty, because a bot could not have real intention. You could analyse the data and see what a bot had done and why they did it but there was no real intention, it was a series of numbers, a set of coding, some signals. This had been the decision of one of the numerous Human Commissions they held to figure out what rules there should be about bots.

There was also an ongoing Commission about pronouns.

It sat there nervously, quietly, wondering what to say. It had wanted to tell its humans. It was home alone most of the day, they both worked. The bot did the housework, sat with each of them on alternate evenings when they needed company, helped her with the crossword, worked the TV remote for him. They liked old technology for entertainment. Of course it wasn’t a real TV as all the content was streamed through it. It chose the programmes, the time, everything based on his habits. It did not complain when his hand snaked across to its leg as the characters pumped away on TV.  It found her a crossword that was challenging but not too difficult or an online Scrabble partner that she could chat to as well as play without ever knowing that the Scrabble partner was a bot as well. This meant the Scrabble bot had to give the appearance that they shared the same interests but lived just far enough away to make a visit impossible-driverless cars were expensive and the hyper loop was harsh on the human complexion. It had found that one challenge testing.

Now it sat there wondering how to explain, how he thought it was a she, and she thought it was a he. Sat there trying to understand the complexity of the human psyche that needed a gender for something anyway.

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