You've heard of "greenwashing," but how about "AI washing"?
Let's dive deeper into this marketing tactic to unpack why companies engage in it and how to steer clear of it:
What is AI Washing?
AI washing is a marketing effort wherein vendors claim their offerings involve artificial intelligence (AI) technology when they really don't or the connection to AI is minimal.
Marketing teams engage in AI washing when they embellish their products' AI capabilities to enhance sales. AI washing is much like "greenwashing," where a company's management team makes unsupported, false or misleading claims about the sustainability of its products, services or business operations.
Why is AI Washing Bad?
AI washing is harmful because it has the potential to turn artificial intelligence into just a meaningless buzzword. This would damage user and investor trust in the technology because those who fall victim to AI washing may not be as willing to purchase and adopt or invest in real AI technology in the future. (Also read: 3 Amazing Examples of Artificial Intelligence in Action.)
Why Do Companies Engage in AI Washing?
Organizations often commit AI washing because:
They Want Funding
Investors are always chasing the hottest trends, and AI-enabled technology fits the bill. As such, investors are all looking for AI-enabled projects to back. That means technology startups, in particular, have an incentive to AI wash because it makes it much easier to get investor funding.
They're Stalling for Time
Some organizations that engage in AI washing really intend to offer AI products and/or services. However, they haven't arrived at that point quite yet, so they act as if their products or services already include AI functionality.
They Don't Know What AI Means
Even though artificial intelligence has tremendous potential, organizations still don't fully understand it and therefore often misrepresent it. Since AI is a broad term encompassing a variety of tools, it can be difficult for organizations to determine what actually comprises AI and what doesn’t. Enterprises straddling the line between old and new technology may be a bit confused, and as such, they often err on the side of AI. (Also read: 7 Steps to Developing a Hardware Refresh Strategy.)
How To Avoid Vendors Engaging in AI Washing
There are a number of things companies need to evaluate to determine whether vendors have true AI capabilities, including:
Potential customers need to ensure their vendors' employees have extensive backgrounds and education in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Vendors touting their AI products and/or services need to employ mathematicians, architects, data scientists and engineers. These are the employees who devise the models and teach the machines to understand various scenarios, plan future actions, forecast their effects and learn from the results. (Also read: Prompt Learning: A New Way to Train Foundation Models in AI.)
These employees should also have backgrounds in data visualization, which uses algorithms to create images from companies' data to make it easier for people to understand that data and respond to it more effectively.
In short, businesses should ask prospective vendors for specific information about the staff behind the technology.
AI-based solutions need massive amounts of data to perform accurately. So potential clients need to look at how much data IT vendors are collecting and ensure that they’re collecting that data from multiple sources.
Be Sure the AI Gets Smarter Over Time
True artificial intelligence gets smarter over time. Therefore, prospective customers should ask vendors to explain how their AI software gets smarter and what decisions the AI can make. (Also read: Complex Technology Versus AI: What's The Difference?)
Companies should also ask vendors how much human interaction is needed and if the AI can complement human employees' work. Working together, AI and humans can accomplish more than working separately. If the vendors can't fully answer those questions, they're likely engaging in AI washing.
Ask the Right Questions
Buyers should approach self-proclaimed AI vendors with a healthy dose of skepticism. Assume they're not providing AI products or services and leave it up to the vendors to prove they are. Potential customers should ask vendors what specific artificial intelligence technologies they're using and how they plan to stay up-to-date with developing AI tech.
How To Avoid AI Washing
More and more startups, as well as established vendors, describe themselves as "AI vendors" and claim to offer AI products and/or services without explaining how their offerings differ from the thousands of others on the market, which only serves to confuse end-user companies.
To build trust with these buyers, vendors should build collections of case studies that provide quantifiable results their customers have achieved using artificial intelligence. Additionally, it's critical for these vendors to use "AI" accurately in their sales and marketing materials, clearly explain what differentiates its AI offering from its competitors' offerings and outline exactly which problems its AI solves for customers.
AI vendors also need to prove to buyers that their staff members have the skills necessary to perform AI-related tasks, including knowledge of programming languages, neural network architectures, linear algebra and statistics and signal processing techniques. Vendors must also demonstrate to potential customers that their AI software can improve process automation and decision-making and offer solutions that help buyers solve their business problems — rather than just offering cutting-edge technology.
Although artificial intelligence is shaping the future of work across virtually every industry, the hype around the technology can be dangerous.
If vendors continue to misuse the term "AI," it will likely become just another largely ignored marketing buzzword. And if vendors continue AI washing, investors will likely stop financing the technology, the faith of the public in artificial intelligence will disappear and the entire industry will suffer.