Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Minds, Bodies, and Verbs

Intelligence without the soul to balance it must of necessity be evil. —John Steinbeck

Many verbs that entail some advanced cognitive capacity are commonly used in predicates for subjects that are not human. All speakers are comfortable with sentences like these:

  • Verizon revamps mobile plans and ends 2-year contracts & subsidies.
  • Chevron has settled with homeowners over the oil spill at Red Butte in 2010.
  • Downing Street was warned about Kids Company last year.

We recognize that there is some metaphor at work in these sentences but it’s a figurative leap that is easy to make: entities composed of humans can be understood to behave in concert, as if with one mind. The word corporation, after all, is based on the Latin term for "body" and one of its earliest senses is "a number of persons united, or regarded as united, in one body; a body of persons."

Most speakers, however, reject sentences like these:

  • Microsoft is vividly imagining a purple square.
  • Disneyworld feels extremely anxious.
  • The Pentagon experienced excruciating pain.

These sentences don’t work because their predicates imply the ability of a subject to experience what philosophers call "phenomenal consciousness," and you only get that if your consciousness arises in a single body that is connected to the world around you via sense organs. We make intuitive and (up to now) fairly easy judgments about whether entities are suitable subjects for either or both kinds of predicates above, based on our ideas about what it takes to have the capacity for sense-based stimulus and response. We seem to believe that certain kinds of cognition depend on experience that comes from having a body with sensorimotor capacities.

An experimental philosopher at Yale, Joshua Knobe, has explored the ways in which people make assessments about the capacity of other entities to experience the kind of cognition that we think of as uniquely human. His experiments show that information about physical constitution (e.g., having a body) plays an important role in our willingness to assume that certain entities can think and feel as we do.

We humans have a controlling interest in the way that verbs are interpreted and the distinctions that I’ve noted above currently enjoy consensus. But for how much longer? I’ve been looking at a couple of the other places where representations of consciousness pop up these days, and I wonder if the boundaries of our capacity to ascribe phenomenal consciousness is beginning to expand a bit.

One place this might be happening is the Twitterverse. Current news stories show that writers ascribe a number of mental states to the Twitterverse that seem to endow it with capacities beyond those that corporations and other abstract bodies are capable of. In the last month the Twitterverse has, for example, done all of these things:

  • spoken.
  • moaned about . . .
  • wondered whether . . .
  • responded with a mixture of amusement and consternation.
  • been abuzz.
  • shone a spotlight on the World Games opening.
  • weighed in on the nonsense controversy.
  • not wasted a second when it came to . . .
  • drawn comparisons between . . .
  • howled with frustration . . .
  • had a lot of feelings about . . .
  • imagined the USA when Trump is elected . . .

Occasionally such ascriptions are made not to the Twitterverse but to Twitter itself. In such cases the context makes it obvious that what is meant is in fact the Twitter data stream—not Twitter, the company.

Granted, we all recognize in these sentences that metaphor is at work, and that the writers of these sentences are generalizing from patterns of what is "trending" on Twitter and then reporting the content as if the Twitter data stream were a single mind, when in fact it is something like a hive mind—a hive mind composed of thousands if not millions of individual, embodied consciousnesses. Many speakers would reject these predicates if ascribed to some other abstract entity—a corporation or government agency, for example. But the Twitterverse is a new and unprecedented phenomenon, and it seems likely that its phenomenal consciousness (or our ability to talk about it as if it existed) is emergent.

More food for thought along these lines comes to light in the recent dystopian sci-fi thriller "Ex Machina." The plot [warning: spoilers galore ahead] concerns a Turing Test, in which a young programmer is lured to the heavily-secured research headquarters of a genius who has created a very advanced robot. The programmer is asked to assess whether, appearance aside, the robot can think, act, and experience existence like a human. She (Ava, the robot, who is sexually attractive to the programmer), performs admirably: she convincingly uses predicates that are normally the reserve of human speakers, reporting that she feels nervous, she feels sad, she doesn’t want to make someone else feel uncomfortable. She expresses a desire for human contact, she has an opinion on the states of mind of her human contacts. She is, in short, utterly convincing as a being capable of humanlike consciousness and experience. As her creator in the film puts it: "To escape, she would have to use imagination, sexuality, self-awareness, empathy, manipulation—and she did. If that isn’t AI, what the **** is?"

But then Ava violently destroys her creator without compunction and imprisons the duped programmer who assisted her before escaping alone from the research headquarters. The linguistically unsettling feature of Ava is her ability to mimic human sensibility convincingly through her speech but then to suggest through her behavior that her words do not map to expected meanings that are inextricably bound with human feelings.

In July, more than a thousand AI researchers, including thought leaders such as Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking, signed an open letter expressing their apprehensions about the ability of artificial intelligence to eventually become a hostile and destructive force in the world, threatening and perhaps eventually even supplanting human life. The letter expresses fears that AI, acting without human intervention, might be able to "engage targets," and "search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria." It notes that autonomous, intelligent weapons (in other words, weaponized robots) would be "ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group." Here again we see a level of discrimination and judgment ascribed to entities that possess humanlike intelligence and may enjoy some of the sensorimotor capacities of humans, but without the vulnerability that is part and parcel of the human condition: namely, a body that is subject to pain, suffering, loss and death.

The common thread here is perhaps an unsettling of the certainty of the line between our humanity and the aspects of it that we can increasingly outsource to technology. It doesn’t matter so much that thousands of minds can converge on single emotions in the Twitter stream—but there is an understandable nervousness about putting a mind into a body without endowing the mind and the body with the qualities that distinguish and (we think) ennoble us. It is unnerving to think that the genuineness of our use of the predicates that define our humanity might become undependable.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 1st 2015, 2:44 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
It's commonplace in technical editing to be on the lookout for anthropomorphism. Examples include:

The server expects an authentication token in the header of each request.

Documents know how to manage data; views know how to display the data and accept operations on it.

You do not have to use the "sizeof" operator to find the size of a Date object, because the "new" operator can tell what size the object is.

(The latter two are "do not do this" examples from the Microsoft style guide.)

None of these example would be uncommon in informal technical writing, such as in a blog entry.

People can read insidious tendencies into this nominal assignment of human characteristics to software, but I personally think this tendency is more benign--we just anthropomorphize everything.
Tuesday September 1st 2015, 2:55 AM
Comment by: Peter J. (San Diego, CA)
Great question, Orin. But I do not think that humanity is ready to wrestle and pin an answer. At present, we mere humans are much too in thrall of technology ("Hey look! I can write and send a text by doing nothing more than talking to my mobile. What a time-saver!") and its ability to take over so many of our mindless chores, like thinking, leaving us more time to ... what, exactly? We are a society that mostly thinks water comes out of our walls, our refrigerators defrost themselves but do not know why, and have no idea how TV works, but we are sure glad it does. Many seem to think that the recent Pluto fly-by was really done in the same basement studio at NBC in Burbank where "they" faked the Moon landings and the Mars rovers.

AI? Give us more, more, more! Why? Because it is "cool." I am more afraid of that attitude than of AI itself. After all, so far all AI programming is done by human beings. That is the same species that thinks anyone should be able to by guns and ammo at a gun "show" in five minutes. What could go wrong?
Tuesday September 1st 2015, 9:12 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
On a mundane level, how many of us swear at Siri? When my wife is trying to get past Verizon's automated telephone gatekeeper, she repeatedly demands, "Agent, please!" Anyone listening in on that conversation would hear me in the background muttering (to no avail), "You don't have to say 'please' to a robot." But we're all too ready to ascribe a "self" to our own creations.
Tuesday September 1st 2015, 9:14 AM
Comment by: James R.
"...I wonder if the boundaries of our capacity to ascribe phenomenal consciousness is beginning to expand a bit."

Regardless of whether or to what extent such boundaries are expanding, we still need verbs to agree with subjects!
Tuesday September 1st 2015, 12:21 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Orin, Thanks for the article.

Your twitter examples could also relate to stock market reporting. On CNBC for example you will hear a lot of the same type anthropomorphism of the market.

The market can be concerned/unconcerned, happy/unhappy, troubled/untroubled by current events. It can also love and feel unloved by governmental activities.

Wednesday September 2nd 2015, 8:48 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, all, for comments. Mike H, I'm not a reader of much financial news but it makes perfect sense that "the market" would have the same reactive capacities as the Twitterverse--and it may well have been the inspiration for writers to report on Twitter in the way that they do.

Peter J., I too am in favor of more AI, but preferably more in the form of robot pets, less in the form or robot weapons!
Thursday September 3rd 2015, 3:23 AM
Comment by: Craig J.
We routinely farm out our individuality (and thereby our humanity and our capacity for real thought) to imaginary collectives, like nations, political parties and the Twitterverse(?!), and mistake media-generated consensus for truth and lockstep agreement for intelligence. A use of language more in keeping with reality would be a good step toward escaping this madness, as indicated so well by Orwell in his essay on the subject (title escapes me), but we seem hell bent on throwing away any connection between speech and reality. And since we think in words, this dooms us to living in an insane never-never land. We don't need to invent artificial intelligence, we already live it, and it will kill us in droves(literally!) if we aren't a great deal luckier than we deserve. Crazed gunmen should be amongst the least of our worries.
Thursday September 3rd 2015, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Craig, you mean Politics and the English Language:
Thursday September 3rd 2015, 3:12 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Another way to bestow humanness (or at least life) on objects is to give them a gender. Example: "My GPS drives me crazy! First she tells me to turn left in one mile, and then she decides I should turn right in 200 feet, so she says ..." Some people, including adults, use male/female pronouns to refer to dolls and stuffed animals, and live animals of unknown gender, presumably because "it" just feels too detached and clinical. That's especially true if the animal is a mammal or is cute: a bear is a he or she, but a fish can be an it. Most of us call animals of unknown gender "he" - are we sexist? Hmm ...
The Happy Quibbler
Thursday September 3rd 2015, 8:55 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
I believe there is another factor in play here, especially on the virtual World Wide Web. It's not just projecting human qualities onto inanimate objects, machines, robots, code, animals and groups of human beings, but also reification of abstractions, some of which happen to be groups of human beings.

An excellent example is in Peter J.'s comment above. Does he really mean to say "That is the same species that thinks anyone should be able to buy guns and ammo at a gun "show" in five minutes. What could go wrong?"
How can a species think any such thing, even as a corporate entity?
For one thing, species don't buy and sell guns, people do.
And not all people believe that: clearly Peter disapproves of the hypothetical practice, and, while I am a radical libertarian hardliner on gun ownership, so do I. So does that makes the two of us no longer part of the "species", along with anyone else who disagrees?

See how that works? Now substitute "women" "men" "gamers" or "social justice warriors" in an equally tendentious statement of intent or belief (on Twitter, say) and watch the flame wars erupt.

We could all be more circumspect about projecting out own beliefs out there and then playing with the resulting creations as if they were real.
Friday September 4th 2015, 4:46 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
Orin, thanks for the link to "Politics and the English Language", it gave me a chance to re-read it.

After re-reading the essay I saw how unclear my note was, a humbling experience. I won't try to fix it, though, hoping that readers of this string will go right to Mr. Orwell instead of wasting their time with me.

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