Simon Willison’s Weblog


What I should have said about the term Artificial Intelligence

9th January 2024

With the benefit of hindsight, I did a bad job with my post, It’s OK to call it Artificial Intelligence a few days ago.

I constructed the post in a confrontational way, reacting against a strawman argument. This wasn’t necessary, and it angered people who justifiably felt I was attacking them.

Reading it again now, the message I conveyed was not what I intended. People interpreted it as saying that their time spent arguing that AI is not intelligent was unproductive—a reasonable interpretation, given that I said “... I still don’t think this argument is a helpful contribution to the discussion.”

That was rude and unfair. I’m sorry. I regret writing and including that. I should have done better, more careful work with this.

Here’s a much improved version of what I wanted to say:

There are many good arguments for why the term Artificial Intelligence is problematic. I’ve been uncomfortable with it myself. Despite those arguments, I’ve decided to give in to the larger cultural momentum and invest in helping people understand what modern AI can do and how it works, rather than spending any time convincing them to call it something else.

This is (and should be) a personal decision! My big error here was implying that other people should do the same thing.

The rest of my original post was meant to justify my decision, focusing mainly on the academic history of the term and the confusion I felt around more accurate but less widely understood terminology like Large Language Models.

I confess that I hit publish on that previous post despite having lingering doubts about how effectively it made its argument. A version of it had sat in my drafts folder since May, and I figured published and flawed is better than staying draft forever.

That attitude has served me well in the past, but that’s been for posts with much lower stakes. If I’m describing a project I’ve built, sloppy writing doesn’t really matter. I published three separate TIL posts yesterday and the risk of harm from mistakes in those was trivial.

When I’m writing about something contentious, I need to do better. I’ll be bearing this in mind in the future.