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 9 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Politics: COVID-19 looms over White House Halloween celebrations
  2. Health: Fauci says maybe we should mandate masks if people don't wear them — America was sick well before it ever got COVID-19
  3. World: Polish President Andrzej Duda tests positive for COVID-19.
2 hours ago - World

Opposition leader Leopoldo López flees Venezuela

Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López outside the Spanish embassy in Caracas, in 2019. Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

Leopoldo López, a former political prisoner and prominent Venezuelan opposition leader, has left the country, his Popular Will party confirmed in a statement Saturday.

Why it matters: He's been an influential force in the push to oust President Nicolás Maduro's regime and a mentor to opposition leader Juan Guaidó. He'd been in the Spanish ambassador's Caracas residence since escaping house arrest in April 2019 following a failed military uprising.

Obama: The rest of us have to live with the consequences of what Trump's done

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Campaigning for Joe Biden at a car rally in Miami on Saturday, Barack Obama railed against President Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying "the rest of us have to live with the consequences of what he's done."

Driving the news: With less than two weeks before the election, the Biden campaign is drawing on the former president's popularity with Democrats to drive turnout and motivate voters.