Be aware of “AI Washing”

Posted on : 26-01-2018 | By : john.vincent | In : Cloud, Data, General News, Innovation

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I checked and it’s almost 5 years ago now that we wrote about the journey to cloud and mentioned “cloud washing“, the process by which technology providers were re-positioning previous offerings to be “cloud enabled”, “cloud ready” and the like.

Of course, the temptation to do this is natural. After all, if the general public can trigger a 200% increase in share price simply by re-branding your iced tea company to “Long Blockchain“, then why not.

And so we enter another “washing” phase, this time in the form of a surge in Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered technologies. As the enterprise interest in AI and machine learning gathers pace, software vendors are falling over each other to meet the market demands.

Indeed, according to Gartner by 2020;

AI technologies will be virtually pervasive in almost every new software product and service

This is great news and the speed of change is outstanding. However, it does pose some challenges for technology leaders and decision makers as the hype continues.

Firstly, we need to apply the “so what?” test against the claims of AI enablement. The fact that a product has AI capabilities doesn’t propel it automatically to the top of selection criteria. It needs to be coupled with a true business value rather than simply a sales and marketing tool.

Whilst that sounds obvious, before you cry “pass me another egg Vincent”, it does warrant a pause and reflection. Human behaviour and the pressures on generating business value against a more difficult backdrop can easier drive a penchant for the latest trend (anyone seen “GDPR compliant” monikers appearing?)

In terms of the bandwagon jumping, Gartner says;

Similar to greenwashing, in which companies exaggerate the environmental-friendliness of their products or practices for business benefit, many technology vendors are now “AI washing” by applying the AI label a little too indiscriminately

The second point, is to ask the question “Is this really AI or Automation?”. I’ve sat in a number of vendor presentations through 2017 where I asked exactly that. After much deliberation, pontification and several “well umms” we agreed that it was actually the latter we were discussing. Indeed, there terms are often interchanged at will during pitches which can be somewhat disconcerting.

The thing is, Automation doesn’t have the “blade runner-esc” cachet of AI, which conjures up the usual visions that the film industry has imprinted on our minds (of course, to counter this we’ve now got Robotic Process Automation!)

So what’s the difference between AI and Automation? The basic definition is;

  • Automation is software that follows pre-programmed ‘rules’.
  • Artificial intelligence is designed to simulate human thinking.

Automation is everywhere and been an important part of industry for decades. It enables machines to perform repetitive, monotonous tasks thus freeing up time for human beings to focus on the activities that require more reasoning, rationale and personal touch. This drives efficiency and a more productive and efficient business and personal life.

The difference with Automation is that is requires manual configuration and set up. It is smart, but it has to follow set instructions and workflow.

AI however is not developed simply to follow a set of predefined instructions. It is designed to mimic human behaviour to continuously seek patterns, learn from it data and “experiences” and determine the appropriate course of action or responses based on these parameters. This all comes under the general heading of “machine learning”.

The common “fuel” that drives both Automation and AI is Data. It is the lifeblood of the organisation and we now live is an environment where we talk about “data driven” technologies at the centre of the enterprise.

Whilst it’s hard to ignore all the hype around AI it is important for decision makers to think carefully not only in terms of what they want to achieve, but also how to filter out the “AI washing”.