The Ethics of Terminology: Can We Use Human Terms to Describe AI?

Journal article

Deroy, Ophelia (2023) The Ethics of Terminology: Can We Use Human Terms to Describe AI?, Topoi 42: 881–889.

Read the article here (Open Access)

Despite facing significant criticism for assigning human-like characteristics to artificial intelligence, phrases like “trustworthy AI” are still commonly used in official documents and ethical guidelines. It is essential to consider why institutions continue to use these phrases, even though they are controversial. This article critically evaluates various reasons for using these terms, including ontological, legal, communicative, and psychological arguments. All these justifications share the common feature of trying to justify the official use of terms like “trustworthy AI” by appealing to the need to reflect pre-existing facts, be it the ontological status, ways of representing AI or legal categories. The article challenges the justifications for these linguistic practices observed in the field of AI ethics and AI science communication. In particular, it takes aim at two main arguments. The first is the notion that ethical discourse can move forward without the need for philosophical clarification, bypassing existing debates. The second justification argues that it’s acceptable to use anthropomorphic terms because they are consistent with the common concepts of AI held by non-experts—exaggerating this time the existing evidence and ignoring the possibility that folk beliefs about AI are not consistent and come closer to semi-propositional beliefs. The article sounds a strong warning against the use of human-centric language when discussing AI, both in terms of principle and the potential consequences. It argues that the use of such terminology risks shaping public opinion in ways that could have negative outcomes.

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