The AI PR Industrial Complex
Forget the technology’s capabilities, there’s money to be made and points to score.
Allow me, for a moment, to take you inside my inbox.
The normal smattering (okay, deluge) of public relations pitches has completely given way to a category-five storm of artificial intelligence PR. It’s getting so windy in there that CNN may have to send a camera crew. I am *always* amused when they put that poor reporter on the sidewalk to show you it’s raining. But anyway, that’s for another time.
With real progress in the AI field unfolding, there’s a PR machine kicking into gear alongside it that may have no historical analog. All manner of people — politicians, corporate CEOs, ‘thought leaders,’ and Twitter threadbois — are trying to exploit this moment, using the term “AI’ to mask problems, gain favor with the public, and monetize attention. Amid real technological progress, they’re forging a broad, cynical, and craven AI PR industrial complex that’s just now coming into focus.
In this week’s Big Story, I explore the AI PR industrial complex — and why it’s worth our attention. The bottom line is that anyone with a corporate weakness or thirst for the cameras will try to use this moment to their advantage. And, as we try to figure out where to focus, we’ll have a lot of work ahead sorting nonsense from progress. More below.
On Big Technology Podcast, we have two great new episodes for you. Ranjan Roy and I spoke with Brian McCullough of the Techmeme Ride Home, in a crossover episode that covers OpenAI’s questionable business prospects, the proprietary AI vs. Open Source debate, and plenty more.
And Ellis Hamburger, a seven-year veteran of Snapchat, came on to talk about what’s wrong with social media.
Thanks again for reading and listening. Please share the podcast and newsletter if you like it. And if you can rate the show on Apple Podcasts or Spotify that would make my heart flutter with delight. Thank you!
Okay here’s this week’s Big Story:
The AI PR Industrial Complex
You can already see the machine at work. Corporations, politicians, threadbois, and ‘thought leaders’ are probing and prodding, searching desperately for ways to use AI to mask problems, gain favor with the public, and monetize attention. Amid real technological progress, they’re forging a broad, cynical, and craven AI PR industrial complex that’s just now coming into focus.
This AI PR industrial complex is growing larger and worse than its predecessors — like crypto — because the technology is making anything seem possible. With so much opportunity, vacuousness fills the gaps, and exploitation follows. Random academics are hitting the speaking circuit to declare ChatGPT could turn us into paper clips. Middling politicians are writing implausible bills hoping to land on the Sunday talk shows. And CEOs are using AI as an excuse for absolutely anything that goes wrong in their business.
With real innovation at hand, it can be difficult to distinguish nonsense from progress, but there are some telling signs. Companies declaring they’re using AI to replace human workers, for instance, are almost always just papering over more serious business problems. Their statements typically indicate they’re thinking small, are looking to reduce their workforce anyway, or both.
Take IBM, for example. Just this week its CEO Arvind Krishna said his company would pause hiring for back-office roles that AI might replace, suggesting AI could take over as many as 7,800 positions. Technology this powerful should be able to make workers more productive, not unnecessary. And IBM itself sells that very idea to those who buy its Watson AI service. In its marketing materials, it says Watson helps “free up employees to focus on higher value work.” The incongruity is revealing.
Instead of a company responding to a technological sea change, IBM feels more like a diminished giant using AI as a pretext to cut costs. Those close to the company say its statements — while giving it the AI sheen — mask the reality within, where the big, slow organization would struggle to hand thousands of jobs to AI. “Blanket statements work for people that don’t understand how technology can scale across the enterprise,” one ex-IBM employee told me. “It just completely gives more rationale to have more leeway to make more reductions.”
In Washington, meanwhile, politicians and regulators are all but running in front of microphones to shout about AI. There’s indeed merit in examining the technology’s opportunities and risks, but the recent wave of interest feels more like posturing than productivity. In late April, for instance, a group of federal representatives introduced a bill to prevent AI from firing a nuclear weapon. Nobody is handing that decision-making to machines though, and if AI itself decides to fire a nuke, a bill won’t stop it. But the press release generated plenty of headlines. So, mission accomplished.
Regulators are jumping into the fray as well. Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan, for instance, dropped a New York Times essay on Wednesday that was heavy on warnings but light on specifics. Khan suggested that generative AI technology which enables scammers could face potential regulatory action but didn’t spell out under what laws or rules. The notion was great for an op-ed but less so for governing.
“The theories are very vague at this point,” said one ex-FTC lawyer. “My frustration is that the agencies are talking a lot of talk but not providing much transparency or guidance on how they think it should actually work.”
Plenty of AI announcements have real substance to them, but the AI PR industrial complex will grow exponentially as the technology pushes forward. There’s just too much attention that comes with saying the term “AI” for anyone to stop now. This is why each new bit of news warrants a certain degree of skepticism, a necessary reflex amid the hype.