A $400 toothbrush ‘with AI’ is peak artificial intelligence mania – The Washington Post

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It’s time again for a reality check: Companies have lost their minds over artificial intelligence and other fancy technology that probably won’t improve your life.

Let me give two examples: A $400 electric toothbrush “with AI” (don’t ask) and Amazon’s cashier-less grocery stores that the company admitted this week are a flop.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Businesses large and small are racing to show off to their employees, shareholders and you that they are all-in on new magical AI. I’ve seen a lot of tech frenzies come and go, but AI mania is truly out of control.

AI will have profoundly helpful uses. But the technology is also drowning in false promises that suck your time, energy, money and possibly your well being. (Example: New York has an official AI chatbot that habitually gives people wrong legal advice.)

This moment in technology demands more why.

Why does all this supposedly AI technology exist? Why is it worth your time or money? Why is a task proposed for AI — say, asking a chatbot for the proper oven temperature at a fast food restaurant — any better than simpler, cheaper, less privacy-invading ways of doing the same thing?

So here goes. Let’s ask some whys.

Amazon’s flashy flop versus boring successes

I know many people like Amazon’s “just walk out” technology in its Go convenience stores and Fresh grocery stores.

When you grab apples and milk from store shelves, an array of cameras, sensors and AI software detect what you’ve plucked. Your account is charged with no need to scan the items or pay at a register.

But Amazon’s complicated technology has not worked well enough to justify the cost.

As happens with most AI, humans are behind the scenes to check the accuracy of receipts after you leave the store and “teach” software that mistook an apple for an orange not to repeat that error. The technology is also finicky and expensive to install and troubleshoot.

It really doesn’t matter if shoppers like cashier-less stores or not. A technology won’t last if it can’t bring in enough profit to justify the costs and complications. “Just walk out” failed that test, at least for bigger grocery stores.

Amazon says the cashier-less technology has proven its worth in smaller, busy stores like those at airports and sports stadiums.

Amazon grocery stores instead will use carts that let you scan items and skip a register. That’s less complicated tech that makes you do the work instead of AI.

If the technology improves, maybe it will be great. But why did Amazon ignore a lesson from its own history?

The biggest innovations to your shopping are often not from the flashy stuff. It’s from dull technologies that you never see, said Sucharita Kodali, a retail and e-commerce principal analyst with the research firm Forrester.

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Amazon has made deliveries lightning quick with its sophisticated technology (and building oodles of warehouses) to spread pallets of products around the country. When you order a blender, it can arrive quickly because there’s one at a warehouse near you.

Thanks to improvements in inventory tracking software, your local Target store can ship your order for a cooking pot and still have plenty for other shoppers coming into the store.

Your grocery shopping has been improved by worker scheduling technology that ensures there are enough people to stock shelves and also unload truckloads of goods out back.

A toothbrush with AI: Why?

Flashy technology demands your attention like a loud red sports car. You probably wouldn’t shop at a grocery store because it has amazing inventory management software. But maybe you would if it has robots or cashier-less checkout.

Companies can, of course, take cool-sounding technology to a ridiculous extreme. May I present, Oral-B’s line of toothbrushes with AI.

Marketing materials for the $400 version mention “AI Position Detection” — which sounds like a straightforward sensor to detect which teeth you’re brushing and for how long. There’s also “3D teeth tracking with AI” to show whether you’ve brushed successfully.

I asked representatives of Procter & Gamble, which owns Oral-B, what exactly is AI about this toothbrush. They declined to comment.

If you’re jazzed about nightly grades for your brushing, you do you. But this toothbrush doesn’t seem to have AI even under the squishiest definition of that term.

Marc Benioff, CEO of software company Salesforce and a big AI booster, recently tweeted that the toothbrush was a sign of peak AI hype. (Sorry to Benioff and the rest of us, there will be way more AI hype.)

We will get past the mania of companies shoving mediocre or pretend AI into every product and telling you that it’s glorious. It just doesn’t feel that way right now.

So here’s your sanity check for AI hype: Ask a lot of whys, and please ignore 95 percent of what’s happening.

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