Artificial intelligence was a marketing term all along – just call it automation

Quoting Emily M. Bender:

What is AI?

In fact this is a marketing term. It’s a way to make certain kinds of automation sound sophisticated, powerful, or magical and as such it’s a way to dodge accountability by making the machines sound like autonomous thinking entities rather than tools that are created and used by people and companies. It’s also the name of a subfield of computer science concerned with making machines that “think like humans” but even there it was started as a marketing term in the 1950s to attract research funding to that field.

I think that discussions of this technology become much clearer when we replace the term AI with the word “automation”. Then we can ask:

  • What is being automated?
  • Who’s automating it and why?
  • Who benefits from that automation?
  • How well does the automation work in its use case that we’re considering?
  • Who’s being harmed?
  • Who has accountability for the functioning of the automated system?
  • What existing regulations already apply to the activities where the automation is being used?

Marketing isn’t a bad thing – it all depends on what you market and the tactics you use. But getting to the bottom of things does require going beyond marketing lingo, which Bender does well in the above quote.

I was curious about her claim that AI started as a marketing term. After some searching, I got to the Wikipedia page on the 1956 Dartmouth Workshop, which says that:

In 1955, John McCarthy, then a young Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Dartmouth College, decided to organize a group to clarify and develop ideas about thinking machines. He picked the name ‘Artificial Intelligence’ for the new field. He chose the name partly for its neutrality; avoiding a focus on narrow automata theory, and avoiding cybernetics which was heavily focused on analog feedback, as well as him potentially having to accept the assertive Norbert Wiener as guru or having to argue with him.

I suppose that applying for research funding is a form of marketing, which is in line with Bender’s claim.

In any case, talking about automation of specific tasks rather than about “using AI” is a useful trick that I’ll be using in concrete discussions. Unfortunately, I’ll also keep using the AI marketing term where suitable, e.g., in my current title of Data & AI Consultant. After all, titles are a part of marketing.


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