I’m sure you’ve heard the law of the instrument: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
There’s another side to it. If you’re selling hammers, you’ll depict a world full of nails.
Recent hammers include cryptobollocks and virtual reality. It wasn’t enough for blockchains and the metaverse to be potentially useful for some situations; they staked their reputations on being utterly transformative, disrupting absolutely every facet of life.
This kind of hype is a terrible strategy in the long-term. But if you can convince enough people in the short term, you can make a killing on the stock market. In truth, the technology itself is superfluous. It’s the hype that matters. And if the hype is over-inflated enough, you can even get your critics to do your work for you, broadcasting their fears about these supposedly world-changing technologies.
You’d think we’d learn. If an industry cries wolf enough times, surely we’d become less trusting of extraordinary claims. But the tech industry continues to cry wolf—or rather, “hammer!”—at regular intervals.
The latest hammer is machine learning, usually—incorrectly—referred to as Artificial Intelligence. What makes this hype cycle particularly infuriating is that there are genuine use cases. There are some nails for this hammer. They’re just not as plentiful as the breathless hype—both positive and negative—would have you believe.
When I was hosting the DiBi conference last week, there was a little section on generative “AI” tools. Matt Garbutt covered the visual side, demoing tools like Midjourney. Scott Salisbury covered the text side, showing how you can generate code. Afterwards we had a panel discussion.
During the panel I asked some fairly straightforward questions that nobody could answer. Who owns the input (the data used by these generative tools)? Who owns the output?
On the whole, it stayed quite grounded and mercifully free of hyperbole. Both speakers were treating the current crop of technologies as tools. Everyone agreed we were on the hype cycle, probably the peak of inflated expectations, looking forward to reaching the plateau of productivity.
Scott explicitly warned people off using generative tools for production code. His advice was to stick to side projects for now.
Matt took a closer look at where these tools could fit into your day-to-day design work. Mostly it was pretty sensible, except when he suggested that there could be any merit to using these tools as a replacement for user testing. That’s a terrible idea. A classic hammer/nail mismatch.
I think I moderated the panel reasonably well, but I have one regret. I wish I had first read Baldur Bjarnason’s new book, The Intelligence Illusion. I started reading it on the train journey back from Edinburgh but it would have been perfect for the panel.
The Intelligence Illusion is very level-headed. It is neither pro- nor anti-AI. Instead it takes a pragmatic look at both the benefits and the risks of using these tools in your business.
It has excellent advice for spotting genuine nails. For example:
Generative AI has impressive capabilities for converting and modifying seemingly unstructured data, such as prose, images, and audio. Using these tools for this purpose has less copyright risk, fewer legal risks, and is less error prone than using it to generate original output.
Think about transcripts of videos or podcasts—an excellent use of this technology. As Baldur puts it:
The safest and, probably, the most productive way to use generative AI is to not use it as generative AI. Instead, use it to explain, convert, or modify.
He also says:
Prefer internal tools over externally-facing chatbots.
That chimes with what I’ve been seeing. The most interesting uses of this technology that I’ve seen involve a constrained dataset. Like the way Luke trained a language model on his own content to create a useful chat interface.
Anyway, The Intelligence Illusion is full of practical down-to-earth advice based on plenty of research backed up with copious citations. I’m only halfway through it and it’s already helped me separate the hype from the reality.