Future Tense

Why IBM’s “Dear Tech” Ad Is So Enraging

Technology hasn’t fallen short of its promise. Tech companies have.

Mayim Bialik in the ad, saying, "We need tech that helps."
Mayim Bialik’s wishes are nice and all, but it’s recalcitrant tech companies that need to change. IBM

I thought my disgust at tech companies weaponizing commercials to dull our sensibilities would hit a long-lasting high after watching the Amazon Super Bowl commercial. The ad jokes about fake Alexa failures, like embedding the software in the collar of Harrison Ford’s dog, which uses the device to bark orders for gravy and sausages. Ha, ha, ha. I almost forgot that the human warehouse employees who actually ship orders continue to testify that they’re working under “brutal” conditions.

Unfortunately, after seeing IBM’s “Dear Tech” ad during the Oscars, I realized that perhaps the worst is yet to come. This commercial would be funny if it were a deliberately ironic self-indictment of how little has changed for the big tech companies after the techlash. Instead, the love letter to technology itself, which features folks rattling off an aspirational wish list, is an insipid gimmick that does two awful and interrelated things.

The infantilizing ad depicts technology as if it were an autonomous person, a benevolent Santa Claus figure that can give great products to all the good little girls and boys if they ask politely. Mayim Bialik helps set the tone by writing a letter addressed to “Dear Tech” on a laptop. Arianna Huffington quickly makes the conversation more intimate, saying, “We have a pretty good relationship.” In short order, other voices join the chorus to ask questions (such as, “Can we build A.I. without bias?”) and make declarations (including, “Let’s champion data rights as human rights”) that expand upon Bialik’s hope that the relationship can be even better. After all, she informs us, tech “has the potential to do so much more.”

It all sounds nice. But the message obscures the fact that technology hasn’t fallen short of its promise. It’s recalcitrant tech companies that need to change.

That includes IBM. In the fall, it deflected a journalist’s questions about whether it “secretly used footage from NYPD CCTV cameras to develop surveillance technology that could search for individuals based on bodily characteristics like age and skin tone.” Rather than providing information, it responded with PR about being “absolutely committed to responsibly advancing new technologies.”

The ad raises the question, “Can we build A.I. without bias?” It’s especially interesting to think of a variation of the query in relation to IBM’s own marketing strategy for its supercomputer Watson. What I want to know is: Can tech companies sell A.I. without preying on our vulnerabilities and biases?

Commercials for Watson personify the natural language speaking technology as an independent being that can rapidly internalize massive amounts of human expertise that’s embedded in volumes of scientific reports and apply the knowledge to wisely make complex medical recommendations. Debate, however, exists over whether marketing material led medical practitioners to develop unrealistic expectations of what the technology can do, how the technology is programmed, and how hard it would be to set up. Indeed, a few years ago, Cory Doctorow slammed the marketing of Watson for Oncology for being “deceptive.” Frankly, tough questions should be asked about the honesty of the entire tech industry every time a product is depicted as more humanlike than it really is, since anthropomorphism triggers cognitive biases that can get in the way of us seeing things clearly.

IBM isn’t alone in this sunny disingenuousness. Its competitors also give lip service to listening to our hopes and dreams while shutting down criticism that’s voiced to make things better. For instance, Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, has been tirelessly campaigning for “fighting bias in algorithms.” She’s proposed viable solutions, and yet when she made a reasonable case that Amazon’s face analysis technology, Rekognition, “exhibits gender and racial bias for gender classification,” the company didn’t thank her and her co-author for their service and outline a plan to improve. Instead, the general manager of artificial intelligence at Amazon Web Services was overly defensive to the point of being unduly dismissive.

And then there’s the problem of platitudes, an issue that’s become pronounced in the discussion over data privacy. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella say his company wants the U.S. to adopt a privacy policy that treats privacy as a human right and takes its cue from the “fantastic start” over in Europe with the General Data Protection Regulation. But that leaves a whole lot of wiggle room for interpreting what it means to translate human rights values in concrete terms that the U.S. judicial system actually can enforce. Skeptics are concerned that the major tech companies—not just Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM, but also Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others—are now pushing for a watered-down federal privacy framework as a self-serving end run to pre-empt stronger state laws.

Indeed, this is the basic problem with the feel-good appeal to human rights in IBM’s Dear Tech commercial. The person who championed the ideal may very well have specific and uncompromising principles in mind. But in the messy world where actual policy is made, plenty of people who see the world differently can claim to be endorsing the sound bite. A commercial like this one can’t avoid being an empty marketing pitch when it represents a contested concept as a clear and unambiguous wish that technology can magically grant just as easily as Santa can satisfy a request for a new smartphone.

Imagine seeing a movie starring Arianna Huffington where she improves human rights and civil rights, reduces poverty, and make STEM fields less male-dominated simply by having an intense conversation with technology and letting it know that that we expect more from it. The absurdity would make it far more likely to be up for a Razzie than an Oscar. Wishy-washy marketing masquerading as a blueprint isn’t the same thing as the C-suite making hard commitments. That’s why, someday, we should hope the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature goes to a film that covers the hard work and concrete ethical demands of the human tech employees who are pushing for responsible innovation.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.