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AI Washing – Are You Being Taken to the Cleaners?

4 Mins read

Artificial intelligence is all the rage these days, so understandably, people want to hop on the trend and take advantage of this massive popularity boom. Unfortunately, this has caused some people to get the wrong idea, claiming to be harnessing the power of AI tools without actually using them so they can reap the benefits of the trend without offering its rewards to their customers. This practice, commonly known as “AI washing,” is similar to “greenwashing” — a marketing strategy where a business deceptively markets its products or services as more environmentally sound than they are. With AI washing, a company makes false claims about using AI systems in its products, services, or operations.

How Does AI Washing Manifest Itself?

AI washing can take various forms, including words, visuals, or omissions. Some are guilty of full-fledged AI washing, where the claims they make are fully and demonstrably false — while others are more half-truths, where they are using AI but not to the extent they claim.

Some of the most common examples of AI washing include:

  • Misleading product descriptions: One of the most common forms of AI washing is labeling traditional algorithms as AI-powered. Because many people do not understand the difference between AI models and traditional algorithms, slipping these changes past unsuspecting consumers is often easy. But this is AI washing and misleading the consumer.
  • Exaggerating the scale of AI capabilities: Some businesses may also exaggerate the scale of their product or service’s AI capabilities. For example, a company could tout its offering as “AI-powered” when AI plays only a minimal role in the operation. Although they are not outright lying about the use of AI, they are still using misleading language meant to convince consumers that AI is more involved than it is.
  • Claiming to use AI without substantial implementation: Other businesses are guilty of a more egregious form of AI washing, where they claim AI integration in their business when their use of AI is negligible or, in the early stages of development,  perhaps even nonexistent.

The Danger of an AI Wash

Part of the reason AI washing has become such an insidious threat in the business world is that it is difficult to detect. Artificial intelligence technology is still in its infancy, relatively speaking, meaning it is constantly evolving. This constant state of flux makes it difficult for most consumers to stay up-to-date on AI’s latest capabilities and functionalities. As a result, they will have difficulty verifying the validity of any claims.

When businesses are allowed to get away with AI washing without any consequences, the damage is severe, not only against the people these businesses are directly defrauding but also against the AI industry. Some of the consequences we should be aware of include:

  • Consumer deception: The most obvious consequence of AI washing is consumer deception. If companies mislead their customers about their use of AI, these false pretenses could unfairly sway purchasing decisions.
  • Market distortion: AI washing inherently disadvantages businesses genuinely developing and investing in AI technologies. Any money that goes to these companies that falsely represent their use of AI — whether from consumers or investors — should have been going into the pockets of genuine innovators.
  • Legal and regulatory consequences: Companies engaging in AI washing could also face serious legal repercussions. As this form of deception becomes more prevalent, regulatory bodies are becoming more vigilant, imposing fines and sanctions on companies that misrepresent their use of AI.
  • Loss of trust: Finally, AI washing could have devastating effects on the public’s trust in this emerging technology. Many people are still reluctant to trust AI, and if they encounter products and services that claim to be AI-powered but are entirely overhyped, skepticism will continue to grow. As a result, legitimate, beneficial AI tools will be hurt.

Overcoming AI Washing for Good

However, even though the consequences of AI washing are potentially severe, there are ways to combat the practice and its detrimental impacts. From internal guidelines to legislation, we must hold businesses accountable for their actions and ensure that leaders are held accountable for any false claims of AI use.

  • Transparency and honesty: The most important way to combat AI washing is by prioritizing transparency and honesty. Companies should clearly and understandably explain how their product or service implements AI and provide evidence of its use when available and appropriate. By setting these clearer expectations, businesses reduce the risk of disenfranchising their customers toward the AI ecosystem as a whole.
  • Education and awareness: Many AI washing problems can be solved through education and increasing awareness of the technology and its features and capabilities. When people better understand the features and benefits of legitimate AI solutions, they can better distinguish between genuine AI products and AI washing techniques.
  • Regulatory oversight: Regulatory bodies also have an opportunity to curb the harmful effects of AI washing by taking a stronger stand against the practice. Implementing restrictions like stringent verification processes and penalties for false claims can help deter companies from engaging in AI washing.
  • Industry standards and certifications: Finally, the industry itself can help create an ecosystem free of AI washing by establishing industry-specific standards and certifications for AI technologies. This can provide a benchmark by which AI claims can be evaluated, allowing certification bodies to assess and verify the AI capabilities of products with consistency and trustworthiness.

AI washing is a legitimate issue that we must address if we want to create an ecosystem where innovation can thrive in the artificial intelligence space. By understanding the nature of this deceit and how we can implement accountability strategies to handle it, we can be one step closer to ending this deceitful practice.

Ed Watal is the founder and principal of Intellibus, an INC 5000 Top 100 Software firm based in Reston, Virginia.

Tech stock image by krungchingpixs/Shutterstock

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