The core feature of a B.S.-industrial complex is that every member of the ecosystem knows about the charade, but is incentivized to keep shoveling. It’s not so much that we reach a point where we convince ourselves our bullshit is true; it’s that the difference between truth and bullshit has become purely semantic. The definition of something, like artificial intelligence, becomes so jumbled that any application of the term becomes defensible.
Let’s break down the key components:
The marketers know it’s bullshit. At some point, it probably began innocently enough: A clever product marketer, looking to differentiate a technology that three of his competitors were also hawking, likely started out by declaring that his email capture tool was powered by dragon’s tears. When that failed, he said it was powered by artificial intelligence. The next week, customer relationship management solutions became A.I., then sales outreach platforms and eventually… bodegas. Then it became a demand-side problem. Requests for proposal began to ask how technology vendors “leverage A.I.” while investors began to inquire around how incorporating artificial intelligence at scale would reduce churn.
If it’s beneficial for companies to sprinkle in a little sex appeal and brand this as “A.I.,” there’s no incentive to stop
This has long passed its logical extremes. In press releases, Feedvisor, a price analysis tool for brands who sell on Amazon, markets itself as the “artificial-intelligence, machine-learning, big-data company.” This is comically full of buzzwords, but for the purpose of SEO and lower-tier press, I imagine it is pretty effective. While I explicitly made the decision at my current startup to strip A.I. from all branding, I empathize with those who feel they are forced to play along. If the market is pleading with you be an A.I. company, it’s an uphill battle to try and say you are anything else.
The investors know it’s bullshit. When venture capitalists say they are looking to add “A.I. companies” to their portfolio, what they really want is a technological moat built around access to uniquely valuable data. If it’s beneficial for companies to sprinkle in a little sex appeal and brand this as “A.I.,” there’s no incentive to stop them from doing so.
The pundits know it’s bullshit. First of all, apologies in advance to Anand Sanwal, the founder and CEO of CB Insights, who would likely object to being called a pundit. However, his company’s “A.I. 100” list is one of the bullshit-industrial complex’s greatest art forms.
For context, CB Insights built the premier brand in B2B by being refreshingly genuine. The company explicitly calls out the empty wisdom expressed by thought leaders, investors, and consultants, but even it is not above occasionally pandering to the market to advance its business objectives.
When I worked at Dynamic Yield, I filled out the application that ultimately placed us on the 2018 version of the A.I. 100. Like almost every other award application, it was an exercise in innovation theatre. At first, I thought this was a laughable longshot, but as I started to look at the past year’s winners, a dangerous Neil Patrick Harris “challenge accepted” bubbled up in my head. The rest is history.
About a month after we appeared on the A.I. 100, an analyst from Juniper Research reached out and asked to know more about how we were using “artificial intelligence to transform marketing and reduce ad fraud.” I gave him an in-depth demo of our platform and live customer user cases, walking through each capability without once mentioning A.I. The next week, we were listed in his report as one of the top five companies in A.I. alongside Alphabet, IBM, Facebook and Salesforce.
The journalists know its bullshit. Two years ago, TechCrunch said that A.I. has become a meaningless term, tech’s equivalent of “all-natural.” Yet every other TechCrunch funding announcement introduces a startup that is using A.I. to transform the paradigm of its chosen industry.
The press is in a tough spot here. Consumers are clamoring to know about the newest developments in artificial intelligence, but there is minimal objective truth around what is and isn’t A.I.
To help contain the spread of misinformation, I propose all journalists follow the “Theranos A.I.” test. In her New Yorker profile, Elizabeth Holmes described Theranos core blood testing technology as a process where: “A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.”
If a founder sounds anything remotely like this describing her A.I., ask her to try again.
The technologists know it’s bullshit. Fed up with the fog that marketers have created, they’ve simply ditched A.I. and moved on to a new term called “artificial general intelligence.” Every so often, an academic will call out the nonsense, but it does little to move the zeitgeist. More often, the true geeks ignore the noise and build the future.
With the incentives of all players more or less perfectly aligned, conditions are perfect for a flywheel of bullshit to spin faster than it can hit the fan.