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HBO’s Silicon Valley takes a direct shot at the tech industry’s obsession with AI

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Silicon Valley is Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s biting comedy about the American tech industry, now in its fourth season. Every week, we’ll be taking one idea, scene, or joke and explain how it ties to the real Silicon Valley and speaks to an issue at the heart of the industry and its ever-lasting goal to change the world — and make boatloads of money in the process.

Spoilers ahead for the third episode of season 4, “Intellectual Property.”

What started as a silly and somewhat racially insensitive joke from last week’s episode has turned into Silicon Valley’s latest clever skewering of the tech industry’s fanciful obsessions. The show has always had a knack for tapping into lowbrow humor — who could forget season 1’s elaborate dick joke that spurned a programming revelation? But Mike Judge and Alec Berg are at their best when they’re playing off the shallow expectations of those crass humor setups to drive home an earnest critique of the real Silicon Valley.

And so in “Intellectual Property,” Erlich finds himself in a venture capital meeting with the hapless yet well-meaning Jian-Yang, who is eager to pitch three investors on his octopus cooking app. Big Head inadvertently tricked Erlich into thinking he was helping Jian-Yang launch a VR app — “octopus” sounds a lot like “Oculus,” when you want to make fun of an immigrant’s accent apparently. But when the VCs seem surprised that the duo aren’t pitching some form of image recognition app that identifies food, Erlich pounces. The pair ultimately walk away with $200,000 in prospective funding for “SeeFood,” a hilariously apt name for an imaginary “Shazam for food” idea that would let you point your smartphone camera at a dish and receive recipes and dietary information.

The app, of course, does not exist, and Erlich embarks on what feels like a hopeless quest to spin up a working demo in just a few days to secure the funding. Many of the minor plot points in “Intellectual Property” revolve around this ongoing gag, which includes reintroducing Monica for some much-needed screen time as she scrambles to prove to her boss that SeeFood is a viable idea worth investing in.

But like many of Silicon Valley’s fast-moving and ever-changing subplots, this one works best as an opportunity for reflection. SeeFood operates as a good joke, but it’s better as an idea real people in the Bay Area likely think is worth millions of dollars. Image recognition is one of the hottest ideas in tech right now, thanks in part to advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques that allow software to improve itself over time.

Typically these advancements are coming from Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — basically any company with a small and capable army of AI specialists. Nonetheless, the work has yielded some impressive results, with algorithms churning through tons of data until we have programs that can reliably identify any number of real-world objects, including ones a human being hand draws.

Of course, how this tech manifests itself in the real world as something everyday people would use is a point of contention. Sure, Facebook would love to basically sell you ads based on understanding every context clue in every photo and video you upload. But an idea like SeeFood is also a perfectly reasonable application for computer vision, one you could imagine a group of Stanford students working on right this very minute.

In fact, it already exists, kind of. The Scio handheld molecular sensor, from a company called Consumer Physics, raised more than $2.7 million on Kickstarter to deliver a device that could identify and break down the chemical composition of everything from food to vitamins to even medicine. It wasn’t billed exactly as a “Shazam for food” in the way Erlich’s SeeFood was pitched, but the Scio is attempting to do a lot of the same stuff: show you a breakdown of your food by letting you scan it with a small device. Instead of using image recognition and a smartphone, Consumer Physics supposedly uses spectroscopy.

Despite some early and lavish press — TechCrunch called it “Star Trek-like” — Consumer Physics hit a few snags. The team had to shut down its Kickstarter page due to a pending intellectual property dispute over the Scio name. A torrent of angry backers also initially flooded the company’s Facebook page back in the fall due to severe shipping delays and an end product that feels half-baked and desperately lacking third-party app support. Consumer Physics has since started shipping the Scio to backers.

But It turns out that SeeFood, even with Erlich’s con man approach to app development, might be the easier path to a “Shazam for food,” considering everyone has a smartphone. Case in point: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said recently his company plans to turn the phone camera into the world’s first ubiquitous augmented reality platform, thanks largely to the company’s investments in AI.

If Facebook’s software can understand the world and realistically place virtual objects in a real scene, who’s to say it won’t soon be capable of scanning and understanding what you’re eating for breakfast? The only downside is that the tech, when it does inevitably arrive, probably won’t be called SeeFood, which is a real shame.

Update 3:46PM ET, 5/10: Clarified that Consumer Physics’ IP dispute is over the Scio name, and that it has since started shipping its molecular sensor to backers.