augmented-intelligenceThe problem with hype is that it usually backfires at some point, damaging the image and reputation of whatever product or service you were trying to promote. When artificial intelligence began showing real promise several years ago, marketers gushed over its seemingly amazing potential to change the world.

Sensing a good story, the media followed up by painting a fantastical picture of sentient, all-knowing computers with unlimited skills and abilities governing complicated systems of new technologies across all sectors of the global economy.

The AI story certainly contains large doses of fantasy. But it also contains substantial grains – and even sizable boulders – of truth. More important, it’s an indicator of things to come. Today, AI is still a new technology. Tomorrow, it will be a regular part of daily life.

So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that some tech vendors are already rebranding artificial intelligence as “augmented intelligence.” Here’s their reasoning: AI suggests technology that replaces people. Augmented Intelligence, on the other hand, suggests products and services that help people.

The difference might seem trivial, but it’s especially relevant in fields such as medicine, where established practitioners are often reluctant to share the spotlight with smart machines. Very few doctors relish the idea of being replaced by AI. They might be more likely, however, to embrace a system offering diagnostic assistance through augmented intelligence.

Indeed, the willing participation of many experienced medical practitioners will be absolutely critical to the ongoing development of intelligent medical systems. That’s because you need experts to train the systems. Training machines is tedious work, and it seems reasonable to assume that doctors and nurses would rather train virtual assistants than train virtual replacements.

AI isn’t the only technology undergoing a subtle change in branding. Virtual reality (VR), which seemed poised to become a huge industry, is being quietly elbowed aside by augmented reality (AR), which seems more likely to attract a sizable market of business customers. Unlike VR, which takes users into wholly different worlds, AR superimposes relevant data and information over images from the real world.

For example, if you’re an engineer walking through a liquefied petroleum gas refinery, your AR visor will overlay data and information from the systems you’re actually looking at. So in addition to seeing a valve, you’ll see how far and in which direction to turn the valve. Or if you’re a naval electrician repairing a bundle of wires hidden behind a steel bulkhead, your AR visor will show you the wires – even though you can’t see them.  

Although it might seem as though AI and VR are being rebranded merely for marketing purposes, what we’re really witnessing are evolutionary processes at work. Five years from now, when all machines are smart and all visors can display real-time data, terms like AI and VR might be meaningless. By then, we’ll probably be arguing over the proper names of even newer and more powerful technologies.