The AI Effect

Artificial intelligence – defining it is like trying to lift water with your hands. It escapes definition, in part maybe because it’s such a broad and developing concept. In part maybe because it has such mythical proportion (Can it “wake up”? Might it wipe out the human race? Can it fix global warming?). In part maybe because it is the domain of especially smart experts. Or maybe for other reasons, in any case the concept of AI is both real business and a canvas onto which we project our fears and dreams.

AI seems to always be just around the corner, never quite here. Like a mirage, the oasis in the desert that keeps moving away as you approach. Or that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, that no-one seems to be able to find because the rainbow disappears when you get near. Or like Xeno’s myth of Achilles who could never quite catch up with the turtle. This phenomenon has a name: “The AI effect”. What we think of as AI is always in the future. As soon as it is brought into our everyday lives, it loses it mythical qualities. It becomes as mundane as the everyday problems it is meant to solve. The magic falls away.

Consider machines reading and understanding text – optical character recognition or OCR. In the 1960’s this was the frontier of AI research. These days we use it every time we pay our bills without thinking twice. No mystery there. No one calls it artificial intelligence anymore, now it’s just a way save some time.

How about book or film recommendations based on your past choices? Analyzing such data and making personalized recommendations used to be science fiction. Still a focus area for research today, but we encounter them each time we shop online or watch some episodes of The Americans. We might laugh at their often useless recommendations, but it has no God-like qualities.

Voice-recognition, route recommendations, enemies in games, chatbots, financial advice tools, facial recognition and filters, automated photo albums, memories on social media, internet search, personalized ads… not to mention the calendar reminders (how about four reminders from different softwares for the appointment that had already been cancelled anyway?). The list can be made very long, but for each of them the pattern is that they moved from fantasy to boring the instant we started using them.

This is the AI effect, a psychological phenomenon that has more to do with human nature than technology. The AI-revolution is of the slower kind, it changes our world not in great leaps but in baby steps. It changes the work-life, our habits, our consumption… it relies on public investment, research, competition and loads of data. It contributes both to power-concentration and better toys.

Trying to understand, and not least make policy for it, we may be better off looking back than forward. If or when self-driving cars break through, they will already be yesterday’s news. And when Skynet becomes self-aware, we might collectively yawn because we’re looking at time-machines or teleporters or just a way to tell the AI that we already bought that kettle it keeps advertising to us.