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We’re In An Artificial Intelligence Hype Cycle

AI is being name-checked during corporate earnings call at lot these days. Some say the enthusiastic chatter outpaces technical reality.

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The hype around artificial intelligence is skyrocketing. After going nearly-unmentioned in corporate earnings calls four years ago, the promising technology is name-checked far more frequently in such calls today.

Just six companies mentioned AI in their earnings calls in the first quarter of 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. But by the first quarter of 2017, their number had increased to 244. And between the third and fourth quarters of 2016, the number of companies name-checking AI during earnings calls rose to 191 from 107. The data comes from Bloomberg transcript wire and covers hundreds of thousands of public earnings call transcripts.

“We’re in a hype cycle,” Oren Etzioni, CEO of the AIlen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, told BuzzFeed News. “The hype and the expectations in some cases are far beyond the technical reality.”

Artificial intelligence is being mentioned on earnings calls by executives at companies with big AI research operations like Facebook and Alphabet. But it’s also rolling off the tongues of executives at companies you might not expect — Starbucks and Mastercard, for example.

AI’s new role in earnings calls is largely aspirational, Etzioni argued, noting that artificial intelligence is not plug and play, and typically requires a good deal of labor to develop and implement. “It’s not like now we have hundreds of companies delivering cutting edge AI applications,” Etzioni said. “It’s more the case that they perceive the potential.”

Etzioni was careful to note that real progress in artificial intelligence field undergirds the current wave of optimism, but cautioned that too much enthusiasm could be problematic. The hype puts the AI field is at risk of another “AI Winter,” a period in which AI scientists’ failure to deliver on outsized expectations causes funding to dry up, along with technological progress. The last such winter occurred in the 1990s.

“[If] AI is currently the flavor of the month, we could swing back to an AI winter where the government and major corporations will decline to invest,” Etzioni said. But he also cautioned against dismissing true AI progress out of hand. “The challenges we’re going to have in the transportation sector of job losses there — that’s not hype,” Etzioni said. “That’s coming soon and we need to address it.”



Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.

Contact Alex Kantrowitz at alex.kantrowitz@buzzfeed.com.

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