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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Zealous marketing departments, capital-hungry startup founders and overeager reporters are casting the futuristic sheen of artificial intelligence over many products that are actually driven by simple statistics — or hidden people.

Why it matters: This "AI washing" threatens to overinflate expectations for the technology, undermining public trust and potentially setting up the booming field for a backlash.

The big picture: The tech industry has always been infatuated with the buzzword du jour. Before AI landed in this role, it belonged to "big data." Before that, everyone was "in the cloud" or "mobile first." Even earlier, it was "Web 2.0" and "social software."

  • About three years ago, every company became an "AI company," says Frank Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a leading Silicon Valley VC firm.
  • Now, investing in a purported AI startup requires detective skills, Chen says: "We have to figure out the difference between 'machine learning that can deliver real competitive differentiation' and 'fake ML that is a marketing gloss over linear regressions or a big team in the Philippines transcribing speech manually.'"

Plenty of companies rely on one or the other of those tactics, which straddle the line between attractive branding and misdirection.

  • For hard tasks, like transcribing audio or scanning documents, humans often step in when AI algorithms fail. Take Engineer.ai, for example, a company that raised nearly $30 million to automate app design — but was secretly making apps using human developers overseas.
  • For easier jobs, "AI" may in fact be a shiny term for basic statistics. If you can swap in "data analytics" for "AI" in a company's marketing materials, the company is probably not using AI.

"It's really tempting if you're a CEO of a tech startup to AI-wash because you know you're going to get funding," says Brandon Purcell, a principal analyst at Forrester.

  • The cycle continues because nobody wants to miss out on investing in — or being — the next Google or Facebook.
  • CEOs demand that their companies "use AI," without regard for how or whether it's necessary, says Svetlana Sicular, research VP at Gartner.

The tech sector's fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude plays into the problem.

  • Many AI systems are slow to improve and require a good deal of human hand-holding at first, says Andrew Ng, founder of Landing.ai, a startup that helps other companies implement AI.
  • "But problems arise when the difficulty of moving to higher levels of automation is underestimated, either by the company or by the broader community," Ng tells Axios. "Or when the degree of automation at a given moment is misrepresented."

The confusion and deception get an assist from the fuzzy definition of AI. It covers everything from state-of-the-art deep learning, which powers most autonomous cars, to 1970s-era "expert systems" that are essentially huge sets of human-coded rules.

  • Yes, but: The term isn't going anywhere. So a cautious consumer, investor or CEO has to pay extra-close attention to anything waving the AI banner to determine whether it's a groundbreaking innovation — or just three kids in a trenchcoat.

Go deeper

Updated 20 mins ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a potentially historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring hazards ranging from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow, to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Swastikas found outside Union Station in D.C.

People walk through Union Station on Jan. 16 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Drawings of swastikas appeared etched around the entrance to Union Station in Washington, D.C., on Friday morning.

Driving the news: "An investigation is underway with Amtrak Police and the Metropolitan Police Department after swastikas were reported on the exterior of Washington Union Station on Friday," Amtrak spokesperson Kimberly Woods said in a statement to Axios.

In photos: Biden visits collapsed bridge in Pittsburgh

President Biden and the Mayor of Pittsburgh Ed Gainey visit the scene of the Forbes Avenue Bridge collapse over Fern Hollow Creek in Frick Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, January 28, 2022. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden on Friday visited the site of the collapsed bridge in Pittsburgh.

Driving the news: "I’ve been coming to Pittsburgh a long time,” Biden said, adding that there are more bridges than any other city in the world. "And we’re going to fix them all," he said, per a White House pool reporter.