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What Is AI Washing, and How Can You Combat It?

Artificial intelligence is experiencing perhaps the greatest surge in popularity it has ever had, and people are attempting to capitalize on this trend. However, this has led to some people making false claims about their use of AI — a practice that has come to be known as “AI washing.” 

“AI washing can take a wide variety of forms, from exaggerations to outright falsifications,” says Ed Watal, Principal and Founder of Intellibus. “As artificial intelligence becomes more popular, the number of wrongdoers hoping to exploit this trend will increase.”

According to Watal, one of the most common examples of AI washing is misleading product descriptions. For example, due to the similarities between traditional algorithms and AI models, the average consumer may not be able to tell the difference between these two claims. As such, businesses may try to mislead their customers into thinking that their traditional algorithms are AI.

“Beyond this, some businesses have conducted a hyperbolic form of AI washing in that they exaggerate the scale of their product or service’s AI capabilities,” Watal says. “For example, the phrase ‘AI-powered’ is often tossed around, but its meaning is ambiguous. If AI technology plays only a minor role in the operation, this misleading language is being used to convince consumers that AI is more involved than it actually is.”

As Watal explains, other companies are bolder with their AI washing, claiming to use artificial intelligence technology in their businesses without any substantial implementation. Some businesses have also claimed to use AI when their use of the technology is negligible or in the early stages of its development. Worse yet, some have even claimed to use AI despite not using the technology at all.

Why AI washing is a bad thing

This begs the question — why would people want to do this? What is the advantage to businesses of misleading consumers into thinking that a product or service uses AI? 

Watal explains that, ultimately, companies that engage in AI washing are looking to capitalize on the popularity of this innovation and give themselves a false image of being “ahead of the curve.” Unfortunately, this practice is incredibly harmful.

“The most obvious consequences of AI washing are for consumers,” says Watal. “If consumers are lied to about the nature of a product or service’s AI usage, they could be falsely swayed to make certain purchasing decisions. The level of consumer deception is deceitful and deplorable, as it takes advantage of people’s eagerness to explore innovations.”

AI washing also has severe consequences for the market and the viability of future AI innovations, as any investment made in a company that is AI washing is an investment that is not going to a company that is legitimately making strides in AI. In another sense, when investors put their money into products and services that are examples of AI washing and those investments underperform, they will be left reluctant to invest in other businesses claiming to use AI.

“Similarly, the proliferation of AI washing could erode the public’s trust in the field of AI,” Watal explains. “Because AI is such a new technology, and there is still so much uncertainty about its future capabilities, along with outright misinformation, many people are still reluctant to embrace this new technology. If they are misled by companies conducting AI washing, their perception of AI will be based on overhype, and the legitimate, beneficial tools on the market will suffer a tarnished reputation.”

Of course, AI washing could also pose legal and regulatory consequences for companies that engage in this practice. As this problem becomes more pervasive, regulatory bodies are becoming more vigilant about addressing it by imposing fines or sanctions on companies that misrepresent their use of artificial intelligence technology.

How to stop AI washing

“The most important thing that must happen in the AI industry to stop the practice of AI washing is an increase in transparency and honesty,” Watal notes. 

Because of the technology’s emerging status, the public often doesn’t understand as much about AI as developers — that’s if companies are even giving details about their use of AI, as some intentionally use cryptic language to protect their proprietary technology. Businesses that claim to use AI should be expected to clearly and understandably explain how their product or service uses AI and provide evidence when possible.

“Self-regulation is one way that the AI industry can push towards this transparency,” Watal says. “By establishing industry-specific standards and certifications for AI technologies and marketing claims about them, the industry can set more universal expectations about what these statements entail. There is an opportunity to create a benchmark by which AI claims can be evaluated, allowing the public to verify the capabilities of products in a more informed manner.”

Watal also mentions that there have been calls for stronger regulatory oversight of claims made about using artificial intelligence, as legislation can help curb the prevalence of this harmful practice. By imposing restrictions like stricter verification processes and penalties for false claims, jurisdictions can deter companies from engaging in AI washing.

“Companies that hope to create an ecosystem where artificial intelligence can thrive can support legitimate innovation by improving education and awareness,” Watal remarks. “When people understand the capabilities and benefits of AI products and services, they can better distinguish between authentic and fraudulent offerings. As a result, fewer people will fall victim to the deceit of AI washing, and the practice will cause less harm to the reputation of the AI industry as a whole.”

AI washing is a dangerous practice with severe consequences — not only for the direct victims of this deceit but also for the industry as a whole. Artificial intelligence has the power to help several people and industries, but unsubstantiated claims about its use can make people mistrust the technology. Curbing this deceitful practice will help us create a future where AI can be developed more responsibly.

— Ed Watal is the founder and principal of Intellibus, an INC 5000 Top 100 Software firm based in Reston, Virginia. He regularly serves as a board advisor to the world’s largest financial institutions. C-level executives rely on him for IT strategy & architecture due to his business acumen & deep IT knowledge. One of Ed’s key projects includes BigParser (an Ethical AI Platform and an A Data Commons for the World). He has also built and sold several Tech & AI startups. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, he worked in some of the largest global financial institutions, including RBS, Deutsche Bank, and Citigroup. He is the author of numerous articles and one of the defining books on cloud fundamentals called ‘Cloud Basics.’ Ed has substantial teaching experience and has served as a lecturer for universities globally, including NYU and Stanford. Ed has been featured on Fox News, Information Week, and NewsNation.

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