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  • Writer's pictureMichael Strange

Is Everything ‘AI’ Really AI?

Updated: Apr 26

Just recently Amazon announced that it will no longer use ‘no-checkout’ payment – a system where AI would supposedly monitor and tally up whatever you were removing from the shelves – because it wasn’t working as planned. What had been billed as a technological AI-fuelled revolution in retail was, supposedly, dependent on cheap human labour based in India watching security camera footage.[1] Such stories are increasingly common, functioning as urban myths that remind us of an alternate reality behind the utopian allure of techno-hype. But going beyond the question of whether AI is driven by micro-processors or underpaid agency workers, how much of what our politicians and business leaders call ‘AI’ is really AI?

Hype sells. Historically, hype serves to push through societal acceptance of new technological products. This is no less true with AI than with any earlier technology. We’ve seen it with both the utopian fantasy 'AI will save us!' but also the dystopian dread 'AI will kill us' or 'Take away our jobs'.

Even where we might panic that AI is an elitist takeover driven from Silicon Valley, hype continues to work its way towards driving acceptance of the technology. That is because by removing the space for nuance, eventually we’re forced to either totally reject or ultimately accept the technology. Whilst rejection is possible, almost always acceptance is the more likely outcome.

Two digitally illustrated green playing cards on a white background, with the letters A and I in capitals and lowercase calligraphy over modified photographs of human mouths in profile.

Alina Constantin / Better Images of AI / Handmade A.I / CC-BY 4.0

AI hype works to draw attention to the technology. Dystopian and utopian accounts alike focus on the overwhelming capacity of AI’s data processing capacities, an ability to see patterns we can’t even imagine, and simulate human-like intelligence. AI hype does two other things. First, it obscures that the technology itself has no agency. And second, it causes us to overlook that ‘AI’ is a term used to cover so many different products and services that the term has become so abstract as to have almost lost meaning. AI has become what Ernesto Laclau might have called an ‘empty signifier’ – a term that covers so much that it has temporarily lost meaning, linking an otherwise disparate and disconnected group of other practices and identities together in a common political project. So, as a political project, what is ‘AI’?

To answer that question, we need to look beyond the techno-hype and ask some important questions. For example, what political changes are being proposed? And does this alter economic relations? We need journalists to ask such questions, but also, we need to be doing this ourselves to avoid being distracted by AI hype.

Amongst the many arguments put in favor of AI, is that it can improve human healthcare. Certainly, systems that can manage complex data and see patterns that help doctors treat patients better have the potential to do wonderful things. Yet, within the AI hype in healthcare we also see a focus on handing patient data but also key infrastructure over to private firms. Such shifts are significant but also have much more to do with politics and economics than they do with technology, yet AI hype serves to distract the media and public from engaging in debating the relative merits of such privatization.  

The various technologies commonly referred to as ‘AI’ offer amazing tools but, as with any other tool, it comes down to how they are used. And, to know how to use AI tools correctly, we need to get better at critically questioning if what we’re told is ‘AI’ really is AI or, rather, just hype used to distract us from asking the kinds of questions necessary to building a better future.


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