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FTC warns tech: “Keep your AI claims in check.”

After announcing a new division to combat tech “snake oil,” the FTC warned the overzealous industry to “keep your AI claims in check.”

I wrote five years ago that “AI Powered” is the meaningless tech equivalent of “all natural,” but it has gone beyond cheeky. Most products claim to use AI, but few explain how and why.

FTC disapproves. The agency writes that “powered by artificial intelligence” is a marketing term. The FTC knows that some advertisers will overuse and abuse hot marketing terms.

AI is reinventing everything, but claiming it as part of your product is different from saying it at a TED talk. The FTC warns marketers that these claims may be “false or unsubstantiated,” a category it regulates well.

The FTC advises:

  • Are you exaggerating what your AI product can do? If you’re making science fiction claims that the product can’t back up — like reading emotions, enhancing productivity or predicting behavior — you may want to tone those down.
  • Are you promising that your AI product does something better than a non-AI product? Sure, you can make those weird claims like “4 out of 5 dentists prefer” your AI-powered toothbrush, but you’d better have all 4 of them on the record. Claiming superiority because of your AI needs proof, “and if such proof is impossible to get, then don’t make the claim.”
  • Are you aware of the risks? “Reasonably foreseeable risks and impact” sounds a bit hazy, but your lawyers can help you understand why you shouldn’t push the envelope here. If your product doesn’t work if certain people use it because you didn’t even try, or its results are biased because your dataset was poorly constructed… you’re gonna have a bad time. “And you can’t say you’re not responsible because that technology is a ‘black box’ you can’t understand or didn’t know how to test,” the FTC adds. If you don’t understand it and can’t test it, why are you offering it, let alone advertising it?
  • Does the product actually use AI at all? As I pointed out long ago, claims that something is “AI-powered” because one engineer used an ML-based tool to optimize a curve or something doesn’t mean your product uses AI, yet plenty seem to think that a drop of AI means the whole bucket is full of it. The FTC thinks otherwise.

“You don’t need a machine to predict what the FTC might do when those claims are unsupported,” it concludes, ominously.

Since the agency already put out some common-sense guidelines for AI claims back in 2021 (there were a lot of “detect and predict COVID” ones then), it directs questions to that document, which includes citations and precedents.

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