Account Director Vanja Lakic joins Emilia David, AI reporter at The Verge to discuss her career as a Tech journalist, AI as a media topic, and the pervasive issue of AI washing. The latest boom in AI has saturated the industry with new products - some of which don’t use AI. Listen to the episode to discover how Emilia is now unpicking AI washing and assessing legitimate AI story pitches from unqualified ones.
Transcript for podcast
Vanja Lakic 0:00
Hi everyone. Welcome to another episode of Cogcast. Cognito's podcast where we talk to Journalists and media pros on the latest happenings in Journalism and PR. I'm Vanja Lakic, your host today. With me I have Emilia David, who has spent over a decade in journalism covering various beats including business, economics and technology at news outlets, including CNBC, Waters Technology, Venture Capital Journal and most recently, Insider. We're going to talk to Emiliaabout AI as a media topic and the pervasive issue of AI washing. That's right, you might have heard of Cloud Washing, and certainly, everybody has heard of Greenwashing. But a less talked about theme that's emerging out of the recent flurry of coverage around Gen AI is AI Washing. And we're going to hear all about it today from Emilia.
Vanja Lakic 0:56
Pleasure to have you with us today. I want to start off by just asking you to tell us a little bit about your career to date and your most recent role at Insider on the tech desk.
Emilia David 1:09
Sure, well, you kind of summed it up already in the intro, but I was most recently at Insider where I was sitting on what we called our Tech Analysis Desk. And what that essentially means is that I was writing about the trends and issues within technology. But more of an analysis, quick, but still very much a quick hit type of story. And I was, you know, looking at stories around the rise of Generative AI, what that means for the future of work. And what happens during the tech layoffs, especially around the idea of perks and needing to move from one tech company to another when you have immigration issues. So those types of stories.
Vanja Lakic 2:02
Wow, that's a wide array of tech stories. Now, if we go back to last year, of course, Chat GPT started dominating the news - How did that change your beat and your coverage?
Emilia David 2:14
Honestly, because I began writing about AI back when I was still at Waters Technology, a lot of the conversations around AI were very much, how do we use the technology to make enterprise workplaces work better, more efficiently? So a lot of the conversation - Yes, there was a lot of conversations around natural language processing, a little bit about deep learning, but most of the conversations then, revolved around automation and algorithms. It's fairly recently that the conversation then moved into how big of an impact AI really is going to have it was sort of this - If you were within the technology world, you know about AI, you know what it's doing, you see it happening, but it really didn't explode into the mainstream, where people were using terms like Generative AI, and, and all of that, until Chat GPT came around. So while the conversation within enterprises still pretty much remains the same of how are we going to be harnessing this technology to make ourselves more efficient? There's more clamor for understanding from people who use or work within these companies. It was always something that technologists knew. And if you were, I guess, deeper into technology, something that you understood was on the horizon and you understood that it's the thing that most people will be interested in. I remember in 2018, when people were talking about Blockchain, a lot of technologists were also saying, well, actually, it's AI, that's really changing enterprises. And now, everyone's kind of caught up. It does mean that a lot of the conversations I have are more towards how is it going to help the ‘normals’, like people who are not as involved with technology, and in a way that they don't think about AI? So to bring Generative AI to where Robotic Process Automation was, or algorithm was where it was happening in the background, but nobody really saw. So that's kind of the conversations and how my coverage has also changed.
Vanja Lakic 4:56
And moving on to AI washing in its simplest terms, what is it? And can you give us an example of that?
Emilia David 5:03
So AI washing in its most general term is when a company would say we're using AI or our new project is AI forward, but it isn't. Or it uses very minimal AI and there's still a lot of like manual work going on in the background. And it's - I don't want to give specific company like company names that I think like, oh, they're probably doing AI washing. But it does vary. So often happen when it say, someone would promise a transcription or a really quick editing of something. And while a huge chunk of it might be using AI, it would also be sent somewhere else where there would be transcribers just working really, really quickly, but isn't AI. So that is a type of AI washing. Where it is - Yes, there's a little bit of AI, but majority of the work is actually done more by humans.
Vanja Lakic 6:15
Now, what's the risk that AI presents to investors and for public confidence? Are we at risk of this becoming just another marketing buzzword?
Emilia David 6:26
AI has always been a marketing buzzword, like I have to make that clear. Any technology that's being hyped is already a buzzword. I think what is really good with AI, though, is that very often there is technology and something very innovative to back it up. So yes, it's a marketing term, but, so what? I guess is the big question there. As with anything, if it isn't fully transparent, it could lead to projects, companies, and even investments being overly inflated in value. We are already coming off several years of a tech bubble and we saw how we saw the impact of that bubble, when VC investments started to fall in 2022, coming off from a bubble brought about by the pandemic, and in 2021, right after, and we saw a ton of money flowing into companies. And when there was no longer any money, there was a lot of overhyping of certain technologies, then we saw a ton of layoffs. And if we're not careful, when you push projects that aren't fully transparent, it could potentially bring forward over inflation of value of tech company value once again, and we are really seeing that. And when you don't have a ton of I don't want to say sanity, maybe there's another word for it. But when you don't really have tamping down of expectations, and you believe that some project that isn't really AI is AI and you give it a high valuation, then that's not fair for either the investors or even the future of the company.
Vanja Lakic 8:35
Absolutely. Now, you mentioned before, you're of course in a very unique position as a reporter in that you get to speak with very smart people about Gen AI about AI washing. How do you assess what is an impressive or legitimate AI development? And how do you distinguish a good story when you see one? Given there's just so much being written right now about Generative AI?
Emilia David 9:05
A lot of different editors have told me this, is that if something seems too good to be true, it's too good to be true. So it's a lot of really reading about a project, thinking to yourself, why does it, one, why does it need to be AI? Two, can they really do this? And three, how would they do this? And if none of those questions can be answered by I guess common sense, you should always and this is true for everywhere I've worked that is that, I always have to go and talk to the company and very often. A lot of PR people would make their CEOs open to these conversations and if not the CEOs then whoever is the engineering or tech lead for that project, because they really do believe in that. And that's when you have to ask those questions of how? Why? And also how much? That's, I think that's a big question for me, because AI is expensive. So how much are you really putting into it? Do you think it's enough? And once you have a better understanding of those stories, of course, only time will tell if a project or a new app or whatever will actually push through and, you know, do all of these lofty things that companies promise their AI will do. But once you start at the very beginning and question, why does it have to be AI in the first place? Why do you need to do - Like, right now, the big question for me is, does every company need to do a Generative AI play? Can it just be a normal, data-driven algorithmic-based play in AI? Do you really need to have words generated for this or something generated for this when truly all you're doing is looking for behavioral patterns or certain patterns, you don't need the cloud computing power that is behind Generative AI for this. So once you start asking a lot of those questions of why this? Why the specific AI? What do you hope to accomplish using this AI? Do you have any studies behind this, of how much cost savings or time savings? And how are you going to do it? If it's very if it's something that's a very big project, like a complete overhaul of some system? How are you going to do it? Are you working with a model provider? Are you building it yourself? Why are you building it yourself? Like all of those questions. And honestly, I know that a lot of investors do not necessarily have the time or the experience in asking those questions, sometimes I don't either. There are many AI models that go over my head. But that's how you talk to the people involved. And once you get down to the understanding of that project, you know, other stories could come out. And that's when you also start thinking about like, what does it mean for workers, for the company, and the strategy, type of story.
Vanja Lakic 12:48
What kind of pitch would impress you if it landed in your inbox? What would you say yes to? What's under covered right now?
Emilia David 12:55
Okay, is it bad when I say when you when the pitch says, the people can talk to me in a few hours? That is number one, when I read a pitch, they say, they can talk? That's perfect. And I send an email like, hey, are they available in like, 45 minutes? Like, let me have my breakfast, my coffee, like, can we talk? Yes, definitely is like, okay, I'll do this right now. But most often, for me, especially with my work with Insider, because Insider is more mainstream in a way. It's not like Waters or VCJ, where a lot of my audience were also people within the industry. A lot of the readers of Insider, are people who are curious about something that's happening, they may be in business, they may have a certain understanding, they may know, for example, what Series A, B, and C means. But they don't necessarily understand what Generative AI is. So a lot of the stories that I write for Insider, and I have been more curious about fairly recently, is the impact to people. So any story for me that or any pitch that will already talk about anything beyond just this company is launching an AI program, but also talks about? This is what we think it could do, and how it would impact society and would be open to me asking questions about not about the project or not necessarily about the AI itself, but a lot of the more human centric issues around it, then that's something that I would definitely keep my eye on because I allow other people are doing a lot of Future of Work stories now. But there's always something there that we're probably not seeing, and we're not tapping. I'm very much interested in the impact for like other countries, a lot of the engineers for AI are, for example, or in Asia or in India. What does it mean then? And a lot of those other stories that could follow from that, I think those are untapped.
Vanja Lakic 15:24
Very good to know. Well, keep that in mind. Shifting gears a little bit to the future of journalism. I want to ask you about your impressions of the media industry today. And to put things into short and rather grim context, only a few weeks ago, hundreds of unionized Insider journalists walked out off the job, demanding better conditions. And we're seeing a number of newsrooms like Bloomberg and Cheddar News cut journalism jobs. Where do you think journalism is headed? And is there any reason to feel optimistic at this time?
Emilia David 15:59
I want to say I'm optimistic because I'm still looking for a job. But yes, recently, Insider just won a contract to help protect a lot of jobs from within Insider not just for reporters, but also video producers, audio producers, copy editors and talent. Unfortunately, I have left Insider, so I will not be enjoying that wonderful, hard fought contract. But, and this might seem like I've been radicalized, I have a little bit. I do think that a lot of people within the media industry have seen a lot of turmoil within digital news, especially. And yes, that's happened before digital media has never been the most stable of industries. But what we're seeing now, and what I'm optimistic about is that so many journalists and so many other employees at digital media, not just digital media, media in general, see that there is power in collective work and wanting, if not to unionize, but at least have a little bit more collective transparency within their organizations. And I think when you really are fighting for everyone, and not just yourself, you're actually creating a stronger workforce going forward, one that has more. Not exactly loyalty, but love for the job that they have, because they fought so hard to keep it. And I think that is where I'm very optimistic about. And honestly, wherever a journalist goes, they're still always going to be journalists, they're always going to be asking questions, whether it's for a big news publication or organization, or it could just be even in their local communities, as long as they keep asking questions. And as long as other people who may not be trained journalists continue to ask questions. I think that's great. That's where we're going to get a lot of understanding within the world and even with the Advent or not the Advent because it hasn't happened yet. But the fear of AI taking over a lot of jobs, particularly in journalism, I think that there is still a lot of value for people who ask questions. And we are not yet at the point where Chat GPT or Bard or even, you know, like Alibaba's or Huawei's AI still can't ask questions that isn't in their database, yet. There is still value in human curiosity. And, you know, maybe, maybe when we have quantum computing, and you've mixed that with AI, maybe then but that's like, further along. I definitely think that there's still a lot to be optimistic about within journalism. I sound like someone who's like super gung-ho about this, but like, yeah, that's, that's how I choose to view it. It's not just grim. Yes, people are, you know, companies are shutting down and are filing for bankruptcy. But there are always people who are willing to ask questions and will continue to ask questions, on power, on technology, and, you know, for the people.
Vanja Lakic 20:00
I absolutely agree with that critical thinking piece that curiosity that journalists have is really hard for AI to get right, in my opinion, and I'm not sure there will ever get there. But you know, who knows? Emilia, look, it's been such a pleasure having you today. Thank you so much for your time and I hope you come back sometime.
Emilia David 20:22
Thank you very much.