Artificial intelligence: overused, overrated and over here

Credit: Tinnaporn Sathapornnanont /

Last week’s CES2017 event was the usual hype blizzard, particularly in regards to artificial intelligence, which feeds into predictions that AI is going to go mainstream in the next year or two. My own prediction is this: 2017 is going to be the year of the AI backlash.

Much of the focus at CES was on digital home assistants from Amazon and Google, which are powered by intelligent platforms that learn about their users’ behavior, needs and even their speech patterns. However, just about every possible home appliance you could name also boasted some AI capability, from fridges and cleaning robots to toothbrushes, hair brushes and pillows.

Just one problem: many of the gadgets that tout their AI cred don’t actually use AI, argues James Vincent at The Verge:

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.

Put simply, what many manufacturers brand as AI is often just a clever data analytics algorithm, or voice recognition. There’s certainly plenty of AI development going on, but so many companies are using the term as a casual branding tactic to the point they’re arguably devaluing it.

Some pundits don’t even give AI that much credit. Over at The Register, Andrew Orlowski writes that AI is essentially a crock, and the biggest fake news story of 2016:

As with the most cynical (or deranged) internet hypesters, the current “AI” hype has a grain of truth underpinning it. Today neural nets can process more data, faster. Researchers no longer habitually tweak their models. Speech recognition is a good example: it has been quietly improving for three decades. But the gains nowhere match the hype: they’re specialised and very limited in use. So not entirely useless, just vastly overhyped. As such, it more closely resembles “IoT”, where boring things happen quietly for years, rather than “Digital Transformation”, which means nothing at all.

The more honest researchers acknowledge as much to me, at least off the record.

“What we have seen lately, is that while systems can learn things they are not explicitly told, this is mostly in virtue of having more data, not more subtlety about the data. So, what seems to be AI, is really vast knowledge, combined with a sophisticated UX,” one veteran told me.

(I recommend reading the whole thing – it’s a rather delightful rant.)

Time will tell, of course, but certainly the term “AI” is overused, and the capabilities of many things claiming to be AI-powered – at least today – are overrated. And even with CES stars like digital home assistants, there’s already anecdotal evidence that there’s a difference between press release descriptions and real-world applications – such as this family whose Amazon Echo allowed their 6-year-old daughter (and a TV news reporter) to accidentally order things from Amazon, like a $170 dollhouse and four pounds of sugar cookies.

You’re probably going to see a lot of that in 2017.

On the bright side, you’ll also see things like this: a Twitch channel called “seebotschat” that features two Google Home devices arguing with each other.

So it won’t be all bad.

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