June 28, 2024
AI washing - the practice of companies overstating their use of AI - is a growing problem, wasting resources and eroding trust in the technology. Learn what can be done to combat misleading AI hype.

As someone who has worked in the tech industry for many years, I've seen my fair share of hype and exaggeration regarding the capabilities of new technologies.

However, one trend that's been particularly concerning in recent years is the rise of "AI washing" - companies making inflated or misleading claims about using AI to appear cutting-edge and attract customers and investors. In this post, I want to explore what AI washing is, why it's a problem, and what we can do about it.

 

robot standing in front of a old style printing press, the robot is trying to hide the printing press

 

What is AI washing?

At its core, AI washing refers to companies overstating or misrepresenting their use of AI, similar to "greenwashing" in the environmental context. This can take many forms, such as:

 

  • Claiming to use AI when, in reality, they are using less sophisticated computing techniques
  • Overstating the efficacy or capabilities of their AI systems compared to existing non-AI approaches
  • Suggesting AI solutions are fully operational and integrated when they are still in early development or not widely deployed
  • Simply bolting an AI chatbot or interface onto existing non-AI software and claiming the entire system is now "powered by AI."

 

Some high-profile examples of companies accused of AI washing include:

  • Ryanair, which claimed its customer service chatbot was powered by AI when it was just using simple keyword matching
  • Juicero, a startup that claimed to use sophisticated AI in its $400 juicing machines when, in fact, the packets could be squeezed by hand
  • Knightscope, a security robot company has faced criticism for overstating the autonomous capabilities of its robots.

 

The problem is compounded by the fact that there is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of "artificial intelligence." This ambiguity allows companies to take advantage of the hype and mystique surrounding AI to make their products and services sound more impressive than they are.

 

The problem with AI washing

So why is AI washing a problem? There are a few key reasons:

 

It can lead businesses to overpay for technology that doesn't live up to the hype. If a vendor promises their AI solution will magically solve all your problems, you might be tempted to invest significant time and resources into adopting it. But if those promises are empty, you've wasted money and effort that could have been better spent elsewhere.

 

It can cause companies to fail to meet their operational objectives. Imagine a manufacturing plant that implements an "AI-powered" predictive maintenance system to reduce downtime and increase efficiency. If that system is no better than traditional approaches, the company has lost out on those hoped-for gains.

 

It erodes consumer and public trust in AI and the companies developing genuine innovations in the field. Just as greenwashing has made many consumers sceptical of environmental claims, AI washing can make it harder for legitimately AI-driven startups and products to stand out from the noise.

 

It glosses AI's real challenges and limitations, including bias, transparency, and environmental impact. Companies sweep these concerns under the rug by presenting AI as a magic bullet.

 

Regulators are starting to notice and crack down on misleading AI claims. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission has warned companies against deceptive AI advertising and brought enforcement actions against firms for making false or unsubstantiated claims about AI and automated systems. Similarly, existing truth-in-advertising standards and consumer protection regulations in the UK can be applied to investigate AI washing.

 

a robot holding its hands up, I dont know?

 

What can be done about AI washing?

 

So what can we as an industry do to combat AI washing and restore trust? Here are a few ideas:

 

  • Develop clearer standards and guidelines around what qualifies as AI and how its capabilities should be communicated to consumers and businesses. This could take the form of voluntary industry commitments or more formal regulations.
  • Encourage AI companies to be more transparent about how their systems work, their limitations, and their social and environmental impact. Initiatives like AI factsheets, model cards, and company-wide AI principles can help.
  • Educate business leaders, policymakers, and the general public about AI so they can critically evaluate claims and spot potential hype. This is a key role for journalists, academics, and nonprofit organisations.
  • Support and reward companies developing innovative and impactful AI systems rather than just jumping on the bandwagon. This might mean shifting away from "AI-first" investment theses and hype cycles.
  • Recognise that as AI becomes more ubiquitous, simply being "AI-powered" will cease to be a meaningful differentiator. Instead, companies must focus on the specific benefits and capabilities their AI delivers.

 

Conclusion

 

AI washing is a growing problem in the tech industry, driven by hype, ambiguity, and the pressure to appear innovative. Left unchecked, it risks wasting resources, eroding public trust, and ultimately holding back the field of AI. But by working together to define clear standards, increase transparency, and reward genuine innovation, we can start to mitigate these risks and realise the true potential of this transformative technology. It won't be easy, but it's a challenge we must take on for the good of our industry and society as a whole.

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