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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 32 mins ago - World

Over 3,000 detained in protests across Russia demanding Navalny's release

Russian police officers beat protestesters at a rally against of jailing of oppositon leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Saturday. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Police in Russia on Saturday arrested more than 3,300 people as protesters nationwide demanded that opposition leader Alexey Navalny be released from jail.

Details: Demonstrations began in the eastern regions of Russia and spread west to more than 60 cities.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona Republicans censure Cindy McCain and GOP governor

Combination images of Cindy McCain and Gov. Doug Ducey. Photo: FilmMagic/FilmMagic for U.S.VETS/Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Arizona Republican Party members voted on Saturday to censure prominent GOP figures Cindy McCain, Gov. Doug Ducey and former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who've all faced clashes with former President Trump.

Why it matters: Although the resolution is symbolic, this move plus the re-election of the Trump-endorsed Kelli Ward as state GOP chair shows the strong hold the former president has on the party in Arizona, despite President Biden winning the state in the 2020 election.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Education: Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries — Brazil begins distributing AstraZeneca vaccine.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.