Apple has also joined the race to find a meaningful AI icon

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This week has been exciting for the AI ​​community, as Apple joined forces with Google, OpenAI, Anthropic, Meta and others to take part in a long-running competition to try to find an icon that can suggest AI to users. And like everyone else, Apple took part.

Apple Intelligence is represented by a circular shape made up of seven loops. Or is it a circle with a slanted infinity sign inside? No, it’s the new Siri, Powered By Apple Intelligence. Or when the edges of your phone start glowing, is that the new Siri? Yes.

The thing is, nobody knows what AI looks like, or even what it should look like. It does everything but looks like nothing. Yet this needs to be represented in the user interface so that people know they are interacting with a machine learning model, not just a normal search, submit or something else.

Although approaches to branding this supposed omniscient, omniscient, omnipotent intelligence vary, they have converged around the idea that the AI’s avatar should be non-threatening, abstract, but relatively simple and non-anthropomorphic. (They seem to have rejected my suggestion that these models always speak in rhyme.)

Early AI symbols were sometimes little robots, magician’s hats or magic wands: novelties. But the implication of the first is of inhumanity, rigidity and limitation – robots don’t know things, they’re not personal to you, they perform predefined, automated tasks. And magic wands and things like that suggest irrational invention, the inexplicable, the mysterious – perhaps fine for an image generator or creative sounding board, but not for the kind of factual, reliable answers these companies want you to believe AI provides.

Corporate logo design is typically a strange mix of strong vision, commercial necessity and agreement by committee. And you can see these influences at work in the logo pictured here.

The strongest vision, for better or worse, goes to OpenAI’s black point. A cold, featureless hole into which you throw your query, a bit like a wishing well or Echo’s cave.

Image Credit: OpenAI/Microsoft

The committee’s greatest energy, not surprisingly, goes to Microsoft, whose copilot logo is virtually nondescript.

But notice that four of the six (five of the seven, if you count Apple twice, and why don’t we count) use pleasant candy colours: colours that mean nothing, but are cheerful and friendly, leaning towards femininity (as such things are supposed to be in design language) or even childlike. Soft gradients in pink, purple and turquoise; pastels, not harsh colours; four are soft, never-ending shapes; Perplexity and Google have sharp edges, but the first suggests an endless book while the second is a happy, symmetrical star with welcoming concavities. Some are even vibrant in use, creating the impression of life and responsiveness (and attracting the eye, so you can’t ignore it – looking at you, Meta).

Overall, the impression here is of friendliness, openness, and undefined competence – as opposed to aspects such as expertise, competence, decisiveness, or creativity.

Do you think I’m overanalyzing? How many pages do you think the design treatment documents for each of these logos ran to – more or less than 20 pages? My guess would be the former. Companies are obsessed with these things. (Yet somehow manage to leave a hate symbol in the middle, or a needlessly sexualized one.)

The issue, however, is not that corporate design teams do what they say, but that no one has been able to create a visual concept that clearly conveys “AI” to the user. At best these colorful shapes communicate a negative concept: that this interface No E-mail, No Search engine, No A notes app.

Email logos often appear as an envelope because they are (obviously) electronic mail, both conceptually and practically. A more common “send” icon for messages is pointed, sometimes split, like a paper plane, which indicates a document in motion. Settings use a gear or wrench, which suggests tinkering with an engine or machine. These concepts apply across languages ​​and (to a lesser extent) generations.

Not every icon can signal so clearly its respective function. For example, how can one indicate “download” when the word differs between cultures? In France, one has télécharge, which makes sense but is not really a “download”. Yet we have arrived at the downward-pointing arrow, which sometimes touches a surface. Load down. It’s the same with cloud computing – we embraced the cloud, even though it’s essentially a marketing term for “a big datacenter somewhere”. But what was the alternative, a tiny datacenter button?

AI is still new to consumers, who are being asked to use it in place of “other things,” an overly general category that vendors of AI products are loath to define, because doing so would imply that there are some things AI can do and some it can’t. They’re not willing to admit it: the whole fantasy depends on AI being capable of anything in principle, it’s just a matter of engineering and compute to achieve it.

In other words, to paraphrase Steinbeck: every AI believes itself to be a temporarily embarrassed AGI. (Or I should say, its marketing department believes it to be, because the AI ​​itself, as a pattern generator, believes nothing.)

In the meantime, these companies must still call it by a name and give it a “face” – though it’s telling and refreshing that no one actually chose a face. But even here they are at the mercy of consumers who ignore GPT version numbers as an oddity, preferring to say ChatGPT; who can’t relate to “Bard” but agree with the focus-tested “Gemini”; who never wanted to look at the Bing thing (and certainly don’t want to talk to that thing) but don’t mind having a copilot.

Apple, for its part, has taken a shotgun approach: you ask Siri to inquire about the Apple intelligence (two different logos) that resides within your private cloud compute (not related to iCloud), or perhaps even forward your request to ChatGPT (no logo allowed), and the best indication you have that the AI ​​is listening to you is… colors swirling somewhere or everywhere on the screen.

Until AI defines itself a little better, we can expect the icons and logos representing it to remain vague, unintelligible, abstract shapes. A colorful, ever-changing blob isn’t going to take your job, is it?

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