AI Hype In Overdrive

There was a full-page ad in the New York Times on Friday for the new Samsung “Bespoke AI” washer/dryer combo. Seriously.

Of course “AI laundry” is marketing crap. I’ll bet some business advertised “Crypto Ovens” a couple of years ago. It’s meaningless and stupid.

AI hysteria is on the rise. This is still the early stages. There is far more to come.

AI hype is being thrown around so freely now that it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. Is that still a saying? Let’s just say that a lot of AI announcements these days are complete bullchaff.

Do not lose sight of the real transformations that will be powered by new AI technology. There are profound changes ahead.

But I’m not sure how we’ll identify what’s truly groundbreaking when there is so much that will be exaggerated or pointless.

Let’s talk about one example. You’re going to be blitzed by advertising this summer and fall for  “AI PCs.” It will be so insistent that you’ll wonder if you should upgrade your computer.

It is literally impossible to tell today whether the AI features of the new PCs will be important to you or me or anyone.

Here’s some background about why this marketing pitch will be made so urgently.

PC sales have been declining for more than ten years. There was a sales surge in the first two years of the pandemic, but now the industry is back in free fall. Gartner’s most recent overview was miserable: “2023 records as the worst year in PC history, declining 14.8% in 2023. This is the second year in a row with a double-digit decline.”

Microsoft has done its best to juice up PC sales. It has released new versions of Windows, each with accompanying hoopla. It designed its own Surface PCs, which started as an attempt to identify new form factors that might create excitement. It attempted to run Windows on different chips to create some competition for Intel. (More about that last one below.)

It’s not that those efforts have been wholly unsuccessful but nothing has dramatically changed the curve. PC sales have gone down, as has consumer interest in Windows.

Here we go again.

Two weeks ago Microsoft announced a major push into new “Copilot + PCs,” with built-in AI hardware and support for AI features built into Windows. There are new chips in the “Copilot + PCs” exclusively for AI processing. At the launch event, Microsoft execs predicted sales of 50 million Copilot + PCs in the next year.

Can you hear the incoming ads in the distance? AI! AI! AI on your computer! AI on your new computer! You’ll be missing out if you don’t have AI on a new computer! Your old computer isn’t good enough!

The first new AI PCs will be on the market next week, starting with new Microsoft Surface laptops, but continuing soon from every manufacturer – Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, HP, Acer, and Asus.

From the perspective of the manufacturers, this is meant to be a big deal. Everyone in the chain wants you to believe that you have to replace your current computer.

From your perspective – you, sitting in your chair in front of your laptop – nothing has been shown yet that is even remotely interesting to do with these new AI capabilities built into a PC.

Microsoft will have three reasons for you to replace your laptop with an AI PC.

SALES PITCH NUMBER 1: Microsoft will save money on electricity!

We’re slowly getting used to using AI assistants. Maybe you’ve tried drafting emails with ChatGPT or you saw useful summaries at the top of a Google search. Maybe your work tools are starting to use AI. Great!

You’ll notice that you haven’t had to have a special AI PC to do anything yet. It’s all done by big AI servers in the cloud.

The big companies are spending a fortune to run those cloud servers. It would be cheaper for them if you could do some of the processing on your own computer. The new chips in the AI PCs will do some of the same things without talking to the cloud.

Part of the marketing pitch, then, is an effort to get you to spend a couple of thousand dollars on a new computer to reduce Microsoft’s electricity bill.

That’s not a very compelling reason to buy a new PC.

Expect to see the word “FASTER!” thrown around with abandon. The AI on your PC will run FASTER! than AI in the cloud. At the Microsoft launch event, “Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s head of consumer marketing, emphasized that faster, locally run AI assistants will provide a compelling reason for consumers to upgrade their PCs.”

Will you spend a couple of thousand dollars so Microsoft Word can draft an AI essay for you FASTER FASTER FASTER? I’m not convinced.

SALES PITCH NUMBER 2: Great battery life and all your programs will run, knock on wood, we hope, fingers crossed!

There are some behind the scenes shenanigans unrelated to AI.

Microsoft was badly stung by the success of Apple’s M-series processors, introduced in November 2020. Apple’s processors are so good that Macbook Air laptops are thin and light and have incredible battery life and do not require a fan, while being arguably more powerful than anything comparable from Intel.

Intel has thoroughly dropped the ball. Intel processors are power-hungry and far behind Apple and other competitors – but until now those competing processors haven’t been able to run Windows.

Twice before Microsoft has tried to run Windows on non-Intel processors, in 2012 and 2020. Each attempt was a miserable embarrassing failure. (Here’s some background about the 2020 failure.)

Microsoft is trying to adapt Windows to non-Intel processors for the third time. Once again, there is a lot of hype about swell the new Qualcomm chips are and how smoothly they’ll run Windows programs. Microsoft’s case of Apple-jealousy was on full display at the Copilot + launch event – Microsoft presenters obsessively compared the new Qualcomm-based PCs to the Macbook Air.

There are many open questions about compatibility and performance. Many questions.

Maybe this new generation of Windows computers on non-Intel processors will have great battery life and solid performance.

Maybe this effort will fail just as previous ones did.

But in either case, it has nothing whatsoever to do with AI.

SALES PITCH NUMBER 3: Total recall, with complete security and privacy says no one yet!

Microsoft knew there had to be at least one marquee feature that it could advertise as an exclusive for the new Copilot AI PCs. (Eventually there will be specialized workloads that will benefit from the dedicated AI processor – video creation and editing, for example. Not yet.)

So Microsoft presented a feature named “Recall” that will at first only be available on Copilot PCs. It takes a screenshot every 10-15 seconds of your screen and stores it. You can go back to exactly the screens you were using at a point in time, even months later. Including, say, screens that display your password. Or your private browsing windows. Or (fill in the blank of something that would be embarrassing if your spouse or a hacker saw it). All stored in a database on your hard drive.

The announcement ignited a firestorm of protest from early testers, who complained about the potential invasions of privacy. Microsoft had to backtrack and tighten up some of the security built into the feature – before it’s even released!

Zac Bowden at Windows Central did the best job of putting Recall in perspective:

“Microsoft is fully aware that the concept of Windows Recall sounds creepy. I know that the company spent a lot of time internally figuring out how to communicate this feature to the world, but it turns out there’s no good way to communicate something like this when your users don’t trust you.

“Microsoft views Windows as a platform that should be making money from its users, filling it with ads and bloatware where it can, sometimes at the expense of user choice and OS polish. It doesn’t bode well for a feature like Windows Recall, which relies on complete trust between the user and the platform. If Microsoft considers Windows quality assurance an afterthought, how can it expect people to trust a feature like Windows Recall?”

The potential security and privacy problems with Recall grabbed all the attention, but I keep going back to a different question. Namely, who wants this? Windows has never been able to reliably find my files when I do searches on my computer. Outlook searches are notoriously unreliable. Microsoft’s search engine Bing is an industry joke. Why should I expect Windows to be able to find my browser tabs from last month? I’ve watched videos of how it’s implemented and Recall looks kludgy and unlikable.

It’s just one example of the bigger problem that we’ll face for the rest of 2024: Every company will be shouting that their products use “AI.”

I picture Microsoft developers trying to figure out something that AI could do in Windows – anything! – and this was the best they could come up with.

Personally, I’m not going to buy an AI PC or an AI washing machine without a lot more evidence that it means something more than marketing hype.