Images: Samsung

In the past few years, there has been no shortage of "AI" tech, shaking up the conventional wisdom in all corners of the photography world.

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Adobe has taken its "Firefly" generative AI out of beta and wrapped it into Creative Cloud, Google's Magic Eraser is making it practically trivial to remove people or objects from photos with the touch of a finger, AI-powered plugins are very close to undermining the whole idea of a watermark.

If you had any doubt that this trend would continue, CES 2024 should put it to rest. As the show closes on Friday, we've seen an absolute avalanche of AI products, features, promises, and prognostication, with companies like Samsung, Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm all placing the buzzword front and center in their press conferences.

Image: Intel

But at the center of the swirling AI hype storm is the ever-present question: What exactly are these companies talking about? If CES 2024 has provided any answer, it's: "No one particular thing."

Far from machines or computers or apps that can think for themselves or approximate human intelligence or creativity, 'AI' has lately and increasingly referred to the products of "machine learning," where computers are 'trained' on a set of data produced by actual humans and 'learn' to produce an equivalent unthinkingly, uncritically and to varying degrees of success.

What do companies mean when they say 'AI'? If CES 2024 has an answer, it's: 'No one particular thing.'"

In practice, 'AI' serves a few very specific purposes for the companies that use it as a technology and a buzzword. It's a useful shorthand to refer to the automation of complex or labor-intensive tasks. It's an excuse to add software features to products that might not have had them and to make those features relatively opaque, proprietary, and subscription- or cloud-dependent. Not least of all, it's a way for marketing teams to slap some sheen on otherwise uninteresting or superfluous functionality. A little extra jazz for when the specs don't tell a good enough story on their own.

You can see all of the above at play in some of the goofier AI reveals of this year's CES. Look no further than the AI grill that ostensibly learns from your ratings of its performance, or BMW's ChatGPT-powered companion, or the free TV with a chatbot for a remote (and also lots of ads), or Samsung's AI home assistant robot "Ballie," which has been coming soon since 2020.

The "Perfecta" AI grill

Image: Seergrills

Though AI is sometimes a gimmick, it is, of course, not only a gimmick, as CES has proven as well. Were it not serious, the actors' trade union SAG-AFTRA would not be making deals about future AI voice actors. Getty would not be partnering with NVIDIA to bring AI-generated imagery into the iStock fold instead of keeping it out. If AI did not promise a solution to real and deeply felt problems, the AI companion that promises to use all your annoying apps for you wouldn't have sold out the same day it was announced.

So what can CES 2024 tell us? What you probably already know and/or dread: The AI onslaught will not stop. This means more devices with janky features that change unpredictably with software updates. It means more services that demand the right to feed your work into the machine, typically articulated in fine print, far down in the terms and conditions that they're depending on you not to read. And, hopefully, it means less time doing boring, rote, unrewarding tasks.

"When AI makes obvious sense, it doesn't need to announce itself. It just takes over."

It's reasonable to see the tradeoffs here and want to opt out, but it's clear that the bet from big tech is to find the killer application that's too good to refuse. There is, of course, a theoretical tipping point, just like the pivot at which cameras tipped from film to digital, and mirrored to mirrorless when the objective advantages became too good to ignore.

Will AI tech get there? In some ways, it already has. The most obviously advantageous applications are already slipping into quiet dominance. Adobe's built-in AI Denoise is well-poised to replace third-party tools for all but the most discerning users. AI-based translation and transcription already reign supreme at lower price points and for personal use.

When AI makes obvious sense, it doesn't need to announce itself. It just takes over. But everywhere else? Well, get ready to keep hearing about it.