Are we expecting too much of AI too soon?


Do a Google search on the phrase “how artificial intelligence is transforming”. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

You’ll notice that even before you hit the “search” button, Google suggests artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming:

  • the legal profession
  • contact centers
  • global industries
  • the financial industry
  • Wall Street

Once you do hit “search,” you get 112 million results, from which we can add to the list above items such as:

  • the intelligence community
  • background checks
  • businesses
  • the criminal justice system
  • medicine
  • the transportation ecosystem
  • marketing
  • the corporate world
  • omnichannel marketing
  • WordPress
  • the patient experience
  • retail as we know it
  • product development and design
  • healthcare

And those are just from the first two pages of results alone. That’s a lot of transforming!

But how much of this AI-related transformation is actually happening right now, versus years down the road? The truth is — and this hardly is a surprise — sometimes the hype for a technology gets a tad ahead of reality.

Take one of the “sexier” applications of AI promising to fulfill the fervent dreams of sci-fi fans the world over: flying cars. Last November I received an email newsletter from FORTUNE with a headline that read, “Finally, flying cars.” Well, no, not finally, flying cars; certainly not in the sense that you can look up at the sky today and see mom or dad landing their Audi Aero after a trip to the dentist or a day at the office.

Rather, there are a handful of flying vehicles in prototype. In perhaps the most interesting example, Audi is collaborating with Airbus and Italdesign on a combination flying car/drone that uses AI, machine learning, and augmented reality. You can watch a cool video of the vehicle; what you can’t do is ride one — at least until the “middle of the next decade,” according to I’d say that’s optimistic.

Then there’s Uber, which plans to test vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft in three cities by 2020, with an eye toward having the service ready for commercial use in Los Angeles when that city hosts the Olympics in 2028. Given Uber’s recent problems with self-driving cars, I wouldn’t bet on folks being able to catch a VTOL to the men’s 400-meter hurdles finals 10 years from now.

Let’s take a more prosaic example: AI-powered chatbots. They’re awesome, right? Well, no; actually, they’re rather limited, mostly able to only answer simple questions and address low-level requests and complaints. Once things get a bit more complicated, the customer is handed off to a human service agent (if they’re lucky). Intelligent chat bots definitely are moving in the right direction, but not nearly as fast as the vendors proclaim.

Forbes contributor Jeff Catlin put it well in March when he wrote, “In some ways, AI is its own enemy. Sure, it has the potential to help solve the biggest problems we face. But potential isn’t the same thing as achievement. As high as our hopes are for AI, we need to temper our expectations a little. AI may get there one day, but it isn’t there yet.”

I would amend Jeff’s insightful comment by arguing that AI’s biggest enemy may be aggressive marketing, which drives our expectations and can prompt enterprise decision-makers — no strangers to marketing hype — to invest in AI where it doesn’t necessarily make sense. This in turn can lead to customer dissatisfaction and, even worse, cynicism.

Which would be a shame, because it’s clear that AI and machine learning already are having an impact on a variety of industries. I’d even argue that they are in the process of transforming aspects of some industries (manufacturing, finance, and insurance come to mind), but in most cases it’s a slow and incremental process.

What do you think? Is the AI hype way out in front of the reality? And if you have examples of how AI is transforming a job or industry right now, let us know in the comments section below. (No marketers allowed!)

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