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Clap Or AI Gets It

Can bad reviews kill companies? It’s a start.

The Humane AI pin: a white square tech wearable pinned to the chest of a cream-colored sweatshirt

A recent negative review of an AI gadget–not even the one Chris wrote about; did you know there are more?–is causing drama among the technology’s adherents, who think we’re not being appropriately enthusiastic about AI’s potential. Lucky for all of us who don’t work at AI companies (and maybe even if you do), we are under no obligation to believe their bullshit.

A quick summary of the situation: Some people on the internet are pissed off at popular YouTube product reviewer Marques Brownlee, who reviewed a car called the Fisker Ocean in February. Brownlee did not like the car and said so. In the weeks after his review, Fisker’s stock price dropped and possible bankruptcy entered the picture; while some blamed this on Brownlee disparaging the Ocean to his large audience, the company wasn’t doing so hot to begin with.

Three days ago, Brownlee reviewed the Humane AI pin, which he also did not like. People did not like that he did not like it! (Other reviewers, it should be noted, also did not like the pin.) “This clip will be the gravestone for Humane,” tweeted one AI adherent, though Humane, like Fisker, was having trouble before the review. Another wrote, “I’m sad to see everyone pile on Humane. Hard working people trying to build cool shit deserve our respect. Often they’ll fail. Sometimes badly. But we need them to keep trying.” An entrepreneur writer tweeted, “Potentially killing someone else’s nascent project reeks of carelessness. First, do no harm,” which I would like to point out is quoting the Hippocratic Oath about a YouTube review of an AI gizmo.

All of this got to the point where Brownlee released a video response yesterday, titled “Do Bad Reviews Kill Companies?” It may shock you to learn that his opinion is: no! “You don’t get these bad reviews without the product being bad to begin with,” he says. While he agrees with some criticism that the titles of his videos could have come off as “clickbaity” (both call their respective products “the worst”), he says that he tries to make “a thoughtful, well-considered, balanced and honest and entertaining and informative video that happens to be a review.” He also says that “I don’t have any duty to any of the companies whose products I cover. It is only to the people watching the videos.”

This, I think, is what’s actually pissing the AI people off about Brownlee’s Humane review. He is clear that he has no fealty to them or their stock prices (“I literally don’t care what the stock price is of any company, of any product I review,” he says.) He even says in his video that “my reviews are technically not for” these products’ makers, which must be infuriating to our new Gilded Age robber barons who need constant reassurances of their genius. Because Brownlee isn’t in the business of promoting them or even talking to them, he’s not required to tout AI’s potential.

Like the threat behind crypto’s “have fun staying poor” slogan, AI needs the rest of us to believe in its unstoppable ascendancy because that belief is basically all it has. AI products aren’t about whether anyone wants or needs AI products. They’re about how people could want or need those products, eventually, if everyone stays the course and also keeps pumping money into AI companies. You can call a product bad as long as you immediately point out that obviously it’s going to become good (Brownlee even nods to this in his Humane review, saying that the pin is “the new worst product I’ve ever reviewed in its current state”), because AI products are less products and more promotional tools for the future, for technological advancement, for whatever other big concepts Silicon Valley goons trot out to throw a smokescreen over the barely-functional, largely useless junk they need us to believe is inevitable. 

Whether they really believe this, or whether they’ll just say anything to keep the money flowing, doesn’t really matter to anyone who doesn’t work at or invest in AI companies. But what we believe about AI matters an awful lot to them: As Aftermath pal Ed Zitron tweeted in response to Humane employees’ reactions to Brownlee’s review, “Why do we have to be optimistic? Why do customers have to fill in the gaps between what you've promised and what you've achieved?”

Here’s why:

Like children clapping for Tinkerbell, we have to be optimistic because the grift dies if we’re not. The bubbles of both NFTs and the metaverse burst, at least in part, because the reality trumped the hype; these things weren’t the future, they were just ugly jpegs and boring imitations of Second Life. If the third time is going to be the charm, which as Zitron points out already seems unlikely, then we need to stay on board. This is especially true because AI faces the unique complication that it needs our buy-in, and a lot of it, to feed it the impossible amounts of data it requires to have any potential at all. 

Brownlee, and the rest of us, shouldn’t feel bad for pointing out when AI is bad, when it makes our  workplaces and subway stations and video games and TVs worse. Giving it a participation trophy only benefits the people who stand to make money off it or those who want to kiss those people’s asses. If they can’t make a good product, it’s not our fault for not believing in them enough. The more people call it what it is, the sooner everyday people stop doing life support for AI’s potential, the faster this can all be over.

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