Buzzword Overkill — AI is Not a Thing People, it’s a Discipline

Trying to keep up with AI News?

AI, artificial intelligence, has been through several boom and bust cycles. Today the pronouncements are everywhere with AI coming soon to everything from medicine to your underwear. For those of us working through “the AI winter”, it feels good to be the most popular kid on the block. Remember though, what management promises, we will have to deliver.

I have been lucky to work with AI technology in language for the past eight years and as we worked to find traction, I was exposed to a huge variety of client requests. One of my favorites was this inbound call from a fund in the UK with $11B assets under management.

“We have been reading about all the wonderful things AI could do and we want to purchase some “AI”.

As you know, the deeper you get into your field the harder it is to remember what it’s like to not know what you know. These were smart people in their field, but they did not have a data repository, everything was on analyst PCs, not the cloud, and had no analytics capability. While we completed a small proof of concept, it failed to get approval because “our analysts say they already read everything anyway”. Could have seen that coming (it did inspire us to start our current company).

If you’re in this field, you’ve probably run into a similar request, either from a prospective customer or from your own management. Maybe your marketing department already asked you for some AI to put into a product or added AI to the website. Now you’re supposed to figure out what sort of machine learning you can put in the product, whether or not it does anything useful. It’s just software, right?

Remember the 1990's (maybe you don’t but you’ve heard stories) when the internet arrived and every business had to have an internet “strategy”. Executives that didn’t know how to turn on a PC were jumping on the bandwagon, and most thought a website was an internet strategy.

AI practitioners, keep it grounded and fight back if it gets stupid (leave if you have to, this is moving fast). Don’t be co-opted into the marketing buzz and don’t let management that has no experience with AI try to implement an “AI” strategy from a 15 minute YouTube video.

Managers, read the technical articles that are debunking the exaggerated claims (like this piece by Yoav Goldberg) so you know the real state of the field. Talk to experts and ask questions, challenge them on the fail modes, the testing and the risks.

Know that this is going to change your life, your organization, your markets and your customers. The claims are real but do your homework and make your team do theirs. Implementing an “AI” strategy is not a software project or something you can buy. You need to start small, build a small team and execute some small projects. You do not need a big budget but you do need the right AI tech, a domain expert, access to the data and good application developers who know you don’t tell it what to do, you teach it. And before attempting this, you should already have a good analytics foundation and culture.

That said, don’t wait. Everything you’ve read about the exponential nature of the progress and its impact is true and coming fast. The impact will be personal. If you don’t start right now, you will get run over by the freight train that is AI powered innovation.

Tom (@tom_semantic)