Tech Companies Need to Show, Not Tell, When it Comes to AI

Jan Dawson / October 6th, 2016

This week saw Google announce a variety of new hardware products. But the main theme of Google’s event wasn’t actually hardware but software: specifically, artificial intelligence. Microsoft’s Ignite event last week also made AI a major focus, with Satya Nadella’s keynote titled “Democratizing AI”. Even Apple, not normally prone to talking about the technology behind its products, has started sprinkling references to machine learning and related concepts into its keynotes. It’s clear AI and machine learning are hot topics but there’s a risk these concepts become the main point. What they do for customers should be the real focus.

Ahead of Google’s event this week, I was approached by a number of reporters wanting to discuss the possible announcements and their relevance. One particular reporter asked about the AI angle and this was my response:

The big thing about AI is no-one outside our circles actually cares. What they do care about is whether their devices and services do useful things, but whether it’s using AI, machine learning, or convolutional neural networks is totally irrelevant. So Google, Microsoft, and Apple can talk up AI at these events all they want, but they’re largely talking to the tech press and a few nerds when they do so, not to end users. The old moviemaking maxim “show, don’t tell” definitely applies here when it comes to real people.

The fact is, big tech companies always have several audiences when making big announcements or holding events and they speak to each of these audiences differently. Among those audiences are:

  • Consumers – the end users and often the purchasers of products and services
  • Enterprise decision makers – sometimes the purchasers of technology that ends up in the hands of end users
  • Media – although this is becoming a little less true over time in the era of live streaming events, still the main conduit through which news about announcements filters through to consumers and enterprise decision makers
  • Financial analysts – those who have to build models and ultimately advise clients on whether to buy or sell stock in the company making the announcements
  • Observers – all the others who are interested in what’s being announced but don’t belong in the categories above – including industry analysts like me, who have to form an opinion about the company professionally, but also hobbyists and tech enthusiasts who are interested in trends, strategies, and so on

The problem with the current AI obsession is all the big tech companies are focusing, to a great extent, on every audience but that first one – consumers. As I said to the reporter, consumers don’t care about AI – many of them probably think it’s a movie starring Jude Law and the kid from Sixth Sense. What consumers care about is the output of all that AI and machine learning – the features on their phones and in their online services which actually make their lives better.

Whether there’s AI behind those features is utterly irrelevant from a user perspective. But the fact your phone seems smarter than mine, or my email service seems better at filtering out spam or suggesting automatic responses than yours, or the digital assistant on my new phone seems to understand what I say better than my old one – that’s what really matters.

Yes, AI, machine learning, and plenty of other technologies are behind many of the advances in the technology we use every day. But that doesn’t mean we as consumers need to know that, any more than I need to know how the plane I’m writing this post on is staying in the air. It may be interesting to a subset of customers but that’s not nearly the same thing.

And that’s where my parting comment in the quote comes in. In the moviemaking industry, one of the key principles is “show – don’t tell”. What that means is there’s a tendency, when providing exposition in a movie, to have a character talk through everything the audience needs to know. But that’s far less effective than showing the audience what it needs to know through characters’ actions rather than their words. That’s harder to do – it requires more creativity and may force you to pare back some of the complexities in your story if you find it impossible to explain it to your audience using action rather than words.

That principle should be taken to heart by tech companies too. If you’re unable to demonstrate the practical benefits of your AI chops to users, your story needs work. And your AI story will be a lot more powerful if you demonstrate it with actions rather than having to describe it with words. Especially in a consumer-facing context, tech companies need to show first, tell second (if they tell at all). Demonstrate the great new features and then (if necessary) talk about how it’s done afterwards.

Now, that’s not to say talking about AI or machine learning is always wrong. This is where we come back to that list of audiences from earlier. For a number of those audiences, investment in new behind-the-scenes technologies is a really important factor in making judgments about your company. Financial analysts, the media who shape narratives about companies, and others may all want to know more about these things. But those selling technology should never make telling that story the primary focus, especially in events which are designed for an end user audience.

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his thirteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.
  • obarthelemy

    Isn’t it the customary issue about new tech and the killer app ? Maybe a bit more meta, but still.

  • I think this is a very important and vital point to make. Tech companies are too busy trying to be big in AI, and they seem to have forgotten that consumer confidence in security and privacy is slowly but surely eroding. The rush to be strong in AI could make Tech companies careless about privacy to the point where consumers start to seriously complain.

    • Shameer Mulji

      Question is, how much does the average user care about privacy? Given the amount the usage Facebook and Google’s major services like Maps, Search, Youtube, Photos get, I’m inclined to think not so much. They seem to be more allured by the power and convenience of these free (albeit ad-based) services vs maintaining privacy.

      • Your opinion is definitely what companies like Google think like. However, as described in the report in the attached link, I do not think this is necessarily the case.

        Consumer awareness in security and privacy will increase, not decrease in the near future. Imagine what would happen if something like the recent Yahoo data leak happened to more tech giants.

        I think we are approaching the tipping point for tolerance towards private data collection. The race to collect more personal data and AI, without concern for consumer communication is going to accelerate this.

        http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/21/the-state-of-privacy-in-america/

        • aardman

          I hope you are right, but the sense of urgency (or lack thereof) which most of humanity is displaying with respect to global warming doesn’t make one hopeful. The icepack is already melting, sea levels are already rising, coastal communities are already flooding and people con’t care enough to force governments to start doing something about it. If we can’t even be bothered about that, why would be bother about a ‘little’ privacy breach here and there?

          • We have at least taken action towards cigarettes and pollution. We have brought in the concepts of human rights and equality.

            The human race is not as hopeless as one may think.

    • obarthelemy

      I think it’s a cost-benefits issue. People don’t seem to care much about privacy. A bit more about security. That might evolve over time, especially on the security side with more incidents. For now I’m OK with trading a fair bit of privacy for cheaper/free stuff and more convenience/better service.

      But the key question is what does AI bring ? I read Google event’s script… meh. My home screen already shows me news, weather, traffic, and the day’s plan. I can search for a restaurant (well, at least gAssist does do something I need). I’ve got premade playlists and can search for artists/genres… Voice recog is fine sometimes, but I still don’t see it as a dominant input if only for confidentiality reasons, plus what are my hands supposed to do while I talk to my PC/phone/watch ?

      I’m curious if younger generations will build AI into their routines. I haven’t, probably never will.

      • Indeed. It is the balance that is important, and I see the balance tilting towards security/privacy.

        A breach of security will enable hackers to see your private (naked!?) photos so these two are strongly related. I also feel that regular news outlets are much more concerned about privacy than they used to be. It is a very slow process, but privacy/security is getting more attention.

        And as you say, AI proponents are not showing sufficient benefit to normal users.

        The balance is slowly tilting towards privacy, and the last thing we need in my opinion is Google nerds saying that they want to go to bed with you. They should be more careful with their PR message to normal folks.

  • aardman

    The thing about ‘Show, don’t tell’ is if someone seems to be spending a lot of time and effort on ‘tell’ you can bet your Nana that it’s because he doesn’t have much to ‘show’. I don’t know if it’s willful or not but AI seems overhyped and companies sound like they are over-promising.

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