Every year, the marketing arm of the tech industry huddles around a simmering cauldron of PR gumbo and fishes out a single word or phrase that will embody the hope — and hype — of the latest generation of gadgets. Previous examples have ranged from the charmingly vague (the “Internet of Things”) to the idiotic (the use of “smart” as a catch-all modifier) and the merely hopeful (“3D TVs” were doomed from the start really.) In 2017, though, you should prepare for the over-use of the latest favorite: artificial intelligence.
It’s clear that AI and machine learning had an impressive 2016. There were advances in features for consumers, like image and speech recognition, but also significant research achievements — including a milestone victory for machine over man played out via ancient board game Go. But these successes have created an AI halo effect that gives a reflected shine to any tech company that invokes the concept of artificial intelligence. This, in turn, can lead to breathless coverage that inflates the significance of what is often, at heart, just data analytics, or a Wi-Fi connection.
In the world of consumer tech, this borrowed glory is applied to a range of gadgets, from appliances to wearables. Look at this Kickstarter campaign from last year for a pair of headphones dubbed the Vinci. Its creators say the gadget is “powered by AI,” an impressive-sounding claim that, in terms of actual functionality, boils down to just two features: one, you can control the UI with your voice, and two, the headphones will give you music recommendations based on listening habits. So, if you like to put on jazz in the evening, guess what the Vinci is going to play you tomorrow night. (Hint: more jazz.)
There are plenty of other examples too, with many coming out of this year’s CES:
- The Bonjour alarm clock (an Amazon Echo with a screen), which promises its “AI algorithms [will] ease your morning routine”
- The Sleep Number 360 Smart Bed, which appear in its ads as an anthropomorphized AI bed that tells users in a breathy voice: “I can feel your heart rate, your breathing, your movement.”
- The Kolibree toothbrush, which claims to have its own “embedded AI”
- Or LG’s new range of appliances, which the company says are powered by deep learning and come with their own “artificial intelligence engine”
But is your toothbrush really artificially intelligent? Is your washing machine? No.
While it’s not technically lying to describe these gadgets as “artificial intelligence,” it’s hardly truthful either. The letter of the law is different from the spirit of the law, and while the methods of machine learning and AI will have been used to create the algorithms that power various features, that’s not the same as saying this pair of headphones or that fridge is artificially intelligent.
The phrase used in many of these releases — “powered by AI” — brings to mind the artificial intelligence in films like Her; semi-sentient computers that can joke with you, understand you, look after you. It’s no coincidence that many of the gadgets that are described as possessing or deploying AI are ones that look after you in some way. We know through cultural instincts what the fully-automated, human-coddling house of the future looks like, and we know that the current reality is far less sophisticated.
It’s not just fly-by-night Kickstarter campaigns making these claims either — big tech companies which do important AI research make similar exaggerations. Just look at the video Mark Zuckerberg made about the “home AI” he coded in 2016. It seems almost petty to point out that the AI in this clip isn’t real and that Zuckerberg didn’t create a computer that’s teaching his baby Mandarin, but it’s worth saying it all the same: he didn’t. It’s not real.
Zuckerberg’s video is a goof, something intended to make you relate to a individuals whose vast wealth has completely overshadowed his human-ness, but it also illustrates how the tech world takes advantage of the AI myth. A few fictional flourishes here, a gag or two there, and your imagination fills the gap between current functionality and the sci-fi future. Yes, you can turn off the lights with your voice, but is that any better than using a clapper?
None of this is to say that AI isn’t important in tech right now, and home assistants like the Echo and Google Home do clearly demonstrate the potential for machine learning-powered voice interfaces that can control our surroundings. But we’re also seeing — at CES and elsewhere — the usual parade of hucksters and carnival barkers who are happy to add just two letters to their vocabulary in the hope that it will improve sales. Artificial intelligence is still a dream rather than reality.