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I am writing an essay on a book that I read where many of the characters are not human and have artificial intelligence instead.

When I try to describe these characters, though, I find myself using "android", "machine", and "robot," none of which seems correct. The characters are not humanoid, so I am not sure if android is the correct word for them (although I think it was used in the book).

I also tried using "inhuman" and "nonhuman", but I feel like those may be too vague. I feel as if calling the characters "machines" sounds too insensitive since they express many traits that humans do and my essay is about how they are very similar to humans despite not being human.

Does anyone have good synonyms for "android" or "robot" for me to describe these characters?

migrated from writers.stackexchange.com Jul 14 '16 at 10:48

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  • Hi Kplumber! We don't solve specific phrase-searches here, but I believe the question would be appropriate at English.SE. I'll edit to make the question as well-targeted as possible, and then migrate this over there. – Standback Jul 14 '16 at 10:46
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In Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the machines and appliances around the protagonist's apartment talk and bicker with him.

I would call such things sentient machines or sentient appliances, where sentient means

Able to perceive or feel things.

More broadly, it can be used to describe anything for which there is something that it's like to be that thing. If the artificial intelligence of a machine is robust enough, it is likely sentient, or can at least be said to be approximately so.


Alternatively, you could call them synths (short for synthetics). This communicates that they are not biological, but does not imply that they are morphologically similar to humans.

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The trick here will be to describe who they are, not what they are. In your question, you yourself refer to them multiple times as 'characters.' People, persons, and actors all work similarly.

We usually don't refer to people as 'humans,' or 'biological organisms.' We refer to them based on who they are. Police, librarians, teachers; nerds, cat-lovers, leaders; hoarders, conquerors, sympathizers.

Refer to the AI (there's another term as well) based on who they are, not what they are.

Note: I'm assuming this works because the AI you describe sound quite human to me. If that is not the case, you can follow my advice anyway and simply adopt a sarcastic tone when referring to them in that manner. Also, don't use 'inhuman.' It's too close to 'inhumane,' which puts your machines on par with evil scientists conducting forbidden experiments.

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The scale from biological organism to mechanical being tends to go:

Human > Cyborg > Android > Robot

With cyborg meaning part human, part machine, android describing a machine that replicates a human, and robot meaning an entirely mechanical being.

I think the issue is that it sounds as if the entities in your essay are somewhere between Android and Robot, as they are clearly mechanical in nature but exhibit human traits. Therefore you may have to stick with synonyms to either android or robot to describe them, but it may be worthwhile explaining in your essay where they fall on the scale between human and robot, so that the reader understands they are not quite one but also not quite the other.

Most words to describe androids will come from science fiction, such as synthetics, replicants, AI or bots. There will be many more words to describe robots, such as automatons, droids, machines or mechanisms, but these tend to dehumanize the subjects somewhat.

You may decide, however, to go with something a little more abstract if you find none of the above synonyms describe it accurately. Something like a being, an entity or a sentient. These could also be used with an added description to distinguish them, such as synthetic being or robotic entity.

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I'd think in this aspect you might be able to go with something like "individual" (or a synonym) as you want to make them "humanoid sounding, but not human".

- a distinct, indivisible entity; a single thing, being, instance, or item.
- a single organism capable of independent existence.

Or...
If you want to make it more distinguishable or "impersonal", simply go with "entity"

being or existence, especially when considered as distinct, independent, or self-contained

This might makes it seem more alien or occult than you wish though.

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What word or concept do non-humans use to describe themselves? As the meaning of the word "human" basically means "of or relating to a characteristic of people" what we're really saying when we say human is "like us" or "like how we are".

Thus, to an alien (which simply means foreigner, by the way), they are the human, and we are the non-human. The same concept applies to anthropomorphic, android, and so forth - it's all based on the concept of the word "human". When we think of human or humanoid - one thing we think of is a bilaterally symmetrical entity having sentience and intelligence.

I propose that in whatever language your non-humans use, the word they use to describe themselves would be translated into English as "human" or "people". Thus for them to use the terms "human" and "humanoid" upon themselves, and "android" upon any artificial intelligence version of themselves is perfectly logical.

Perhaps you are struggling with a "humanocentric" viewpoint problem? You, yourself perceive yourself as human, and therefore perceive these others as non-human, hence the conceptual trouble with titling or terming alien AI. Now if you are deliberately writing from a "Sol-Terran-human" point of view, having your struggle with how to term such things may make an interesting moral and ethical point in your essay. If you are writing to present from the alien's point of view, then it might only be natural for them to call themselves humans, AI as androids, and for the AI to use whatever terms the aliens who made them used.

You could even bring up these points in your essay, if appropriate.

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I don't think there is a single word that does justice to that concept. Android implies a humanoid appearance. Robot has the correct dictionary definition, but thanks to Asimov I always picture a robot as humanoid. Automaton could work, but it explicitly puts the character at the whim of its programming.

Intelligence and intellect are nouns, and could synecdochally identify the thing they belong to. Referring to a character as "the intelligence" may have a needlessly ominous vibe, and though this could be appropriate, it would be odd for a unimportant or not particularly bright character.

Construct does a good job of contrasting with the human being, who is not constructed but born. It does neither suggests nor precludes intellect.

Being suggests neither intelligence nor artificiality but is better than thing or entity. The comparison of artificial being and human being is elegant.

Although I always appreciate a good single word request, an even better strategy would be to use the same word the author uses. For example, in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, many of the characters are non-humanoid artificial intelligences, and they are called by the name of the vessel they inhabit. For example, the main character is the spaceship Justice of Toren and she is often called a ship.

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