Watch out for ‘AI washing’

When tech hype hits, everyone wants to climb onto the bandwagon. It happened with chatbots, it happened with cloud computing, and now it’s happening with AI.

There’s a flurry of excitement around artificial intelligence technologies. AI is cool, it’s futuristic — it gets attention. As a result, it’s a desirable label to flaunt. And so now we’re facing the issue of ‘AI washing’.

But what is AI washing, and why do you need to watch out for it?

What is AI washing?

AI washing is where a company, brand or vendor claims that their offering is (or uses) artificial intelligence technology. Even though they don’t. Or even when the connection is minimal and tenuous at best.

In other words, AI washing is a marketing ploy that paints products and services with the AI label —when there’s no true AI involved. Tried and tested technologies, old products and vapourware all get washed up and rebranded as AI. The result is a host of empty AI promises and false fronts.

AI washing is purposeful deception. And there are a couple of different ways that it can appear.

First, there’s ‘Wizard of Oz AI’. This is where the so-called AI technology is no more than a human hiding behind the curtain, pretending to be a computer. Then, there’s the technology that we’ve used for years, but that suddenly gets slapped with the AI label. These are most often rule-based systems that, although appearing intelligent, work using basic ‘if this, then that’ flows.

Why it happens

There are three core reasons that a company may commit AI washing.

  • Funding and attention

It’s tempting for tech start-ups to fall into the AI washing trap because of its funding appeal. AI is the exciting thing that currently has everyone’s attention and imagination. So, people want to invest in it. No one wants to miss out on the next big thing.

  • A ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ mentality

Some AI washing companies have every intention of offering AI, they just haven’t quite gotten there yet. Their promises act as placeholders for tech to come. In the meantime, they pretend they already have the functionality in question.

  • Confusion/lack of clarity

We’ve said it before, but AI is a hugely broad term covering masses of different tech tools. It can be difficult to tell what should ‘count’ as artificial intelligence, and what doesn’t. So, if a company is toeing the line between old and new tech, or just a bit confused, it’s easy to err on the side of AI.

Why AI washing is harmful

The problem is, AI washing risks turning ‘artificial intelligence’ into nothing more than an empty buzzword.

For a start, AI washing undermines the trust and excitement of investors and consumers. The technology that they’re buying into could be the real deal. Or, it could be little more than snake oil. This creates problems for investors, and once bitten, twice shy. Investors that fall prey to AI washing may be less willing to invest in the real deal later, hindering development.

Beyond using up funding, AI washing also stands to inhibit the acceptance and adoption of real AI.

AI washing creates heightened expectations for what the technology can do. When these expectations aren’t met, the result is distrust and disillusionment. People stop believing that such functionality is real or trustworthy. As a result, they struggle to accept or adopt it into their lives.

In short, AI washing hurts the trust, acceptance, development, and adoption of the technology.

Watch out for AI washing

It’s all too tempting to chase the hottest trends. And the tech industry is full of tech hype cycles ripe for the picking.

AI is the most recent trend that people are keen to get behind. But the false promises can cause real harm to the future of the technology.

So, whether you’re looking to buy, or trying to offer, be sure to watch out for AI washing.

Useful links

What is a rule-based system? What is it not?

The AI winter is coming

What is the AI effect, and is it set to happen again?