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What is ‘AI washing’ and why is it a problem?

In the UK, rules and laws covering AI washing are already in place, including the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA’s) code of conduct, which states that marketing communications must not materially mislead, or be likely to do so.

Michael Cordeaux, associate in the regulatory team at UK corporate law firm Walker Morris, says that AI claims have become an increasingly common feature of advertisements subject to ASA investigation.

Examples include a paid-for Instagram post about an app captioned “Enhance your Photos with AI”, which was held by the ASA to be exaggerating, external the performance of the app, and was therefore misleading.

“What is clear is that AI claims are becoming increasingly prevalent and, presumably, effective at piquing consumer interest,” says Mr Cordeaux.

“In my opinion we are at the peak of the AI hype cycle,” says Sandra Wachter, a professor of technology and regulation at Oxford University, and a leading global expert on AI.

“However, I feel that we have forgotten to ask if it always makes sense to use AI for all types of tasks. I remember seeing advertisements in the London Tube for electric toothbrushes that are powered by AI. Who is this for? Who is helped by this?”

Also, the environmental impact of AI is often glossed over, she says.

“AI does not grow on trees… the technology already contributes more to climate change than aviation. We have to move away from this one-sided overhyped discussion, and really think about specific tasks and sectors that AI can be beneficial for, and not just blindly implement it into everything.”

But in the longer term, says Advika Jalan, head of research at MMC Ventures, the problem of AI washing may subside on its own.

“AI is becoming so ubiquitous – even if they’re just ChatGPT wrappers – that ‘AI-powered’ as a branding tool will likely cease to be a differentiator after some time,” she says. “It will be a bit like saying ‘we’re on the internet’.”

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