Why Tech Companies Like IBM and Amazon Brand Artificial Intelligence With Human Names

Plus, one cautionary tale

How Einstein, IBM Watson and Albert got their names.
Photo Illustration: Yuliya Kim; Sources: Getty Images

Artificial intelligence can write copy and manage programmatic media buying at warp speed. It can drive a car and even diagnose cancer. AI is increasingly acting like humans, so companies are putting big resources and marketing money into branding AI with human-like qualities, down to naming their technology after people.

Amazon reportedly picked Alexa for its smart assistant because of its ties to Star Trek and use of soft vowels combined with an ‘x’, making it a unique word that doesn’t easily roll off the tongue (unless you have the misfortune of being named Alexa). Meanwhile, IBM considered a slew of names before landing on Watson, a nod to the company’s first CEO Thomas J. Watson.

“Watson is a human name because it’s a person and it does make the system feel approachable and warm,” said Ann Rubin, vp of branded content and global creative at IBM. “When we do research on Watson, we found that people do think of Watson that way—they think he’s approachable, a ‘humble genius.’ They think he’s smart, that he’s not condescending.”

Then there’s Albert Einstein, which is seemingly full of branding potential that tech firms are clamoring after. AI firm Adgorithms nabbed the first half of the famous physicist’s name for its AI platform Albert while Salesforce secured the Einstein name last year when it launched its AI platform.

“Albert Einstein was known for taking the complex and making it simple and that’s really what we are doing with AI,” said Jim Sinai, Einstein’s vp of marketing. “For the vast majority of companies, AI is out of reach because of the technical complexity and resources required but with Einstein we are doing the heavy lifting to make AI accessible to any business user—plus he was really smart.”

Making AI human

For 7-year-old Adgorithms, the name Albert stuck so much that the firm is currently in the process of renaming itself in the next couple of months.

“Nobody knows us by Adgorithms; everyone knows us by Albert,” explained CEO Or Shani. “If you have a machine that does the work for you, you cannot relate to it as ‘it.’ It needs to be ‘him.’ It’s funny because all of our employees talk about Albert as a he.”

Shani then clarified that Albert is not bias to one gender over another. “If you’re building the smartest system in the world, you have to call it Albert Einstein.”

Under the hood, Albert actually has a bunch of names. Each component of the technology is named after a celebrity or a famous historical figure. “Woody,” for example, handles the creative aspects of Albert, was naturally named after Woody Allen. “Milton” (a nod to economist Milton Friedman) is responsible for budget allocation in media buys. “Flavius” manages historical data. “Zubin” orchestrates all of the AI’s technology while the platform’s user interface is named “Natalie”—a reference to actress Natalie Portman’s dual American and Israeli citizenship. Like Portman, Albert has multiple places it calls home—its headquarters are in Tel Aviv, Israel and the company also has an office in New York, as well as London.

“Most people don’t know but Albert Einstein was supposed to be the first Israel president,” Shani said. “Albert is like one of your team members. That’s why we thought to name him this.”

Picking a name for the long term

IBM Watson famously made its mainstream debut on TV show Jeopardy in 2011, winning $1 million against contestants Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. But there’s an interesting backstory behind how the Watson name came to be.

“We knew that Alex Trebek was going to mention this name many, many times so having something that was advertently IBM was a big thing for us on TV,” IBM’s Rubin said. “We wanted the name to emphasize the potential business value of the technology. It had to work on Jeopardy, which was the big introduction to the world, but obviously it had to work for many years beyond that.”

Watson might seem like an obvious choice for a name because of the reference to the company’s CEO, but the naming process went through many iterations, Rubin said. The name couldn’t be “too cute,” and had to “make people feel inspired.” The software’s name also needed a strong tie to IBM and had to communicate the long-term potential of AI.

IBM first dug into names around the theme of “intelligence.” In 2011, Watson was primarily known for its deep question and answer skills, so the team played with the names Qwiz and nsight. The “q” in Qwiz riffed on queries or question and answers while the “n” in nsight referred to “the infinite number of things that Watson does,” said Rubin.

Then IBM began toying with the name Ace, associating itself with, “star pupils or gifted individuals.” Ace was also an acronym for automated comprehension engine. However, the name, “doesn’t roll off the tongue,” Rubin said. “Anyone who does a big naming project knows that you do exploration—you have dozens of names.”

Other prospective names included EureQA, Thinqer, SystemQA and Deep Blue, a reference to IBM’s “Big Blue” nickname.

Eventually, the name Watson bubbled up. “When we saw that name, it was like, ‘Oh, Watson.’ It’s simple, it evokes the name of our chairman and founder. It’s also named after the IBM research laboratories,” Rubin said. “That really spoke to everyone immediately. You go through all these names and when one pops out, everyone says, ‘Wow that’s it.’”

Since 2011, Watson’s outgrown its expertise in question and answer technology. The AI platform now designs dresses, predicts trends and detects health issues.

“If we had picked something that had ‘q’ in it, that wouldn’t have been as popular because Watson has transformed so much beyond being a Q&A machine,” Rubin said. “We would have done ourselves a big disservice in how we describe Watson today. We don’t even have to say IBM Watson—if we’re talking about Watson [today], people know that it’s IBM.”

A cautionary legal tale

At the same time, brands need to be aware of the legal rights and requirements involved in naming a product after someone.

In 2015, Sharethrough launched a splashy new tool called Hemingway that uses AI algorithms to analyze words and help brands write the perfect headline.

The reference to American novelist Ernest Hemingway was meant to “remind brands to be more human” with their native content, said Dan Greenberg, CEO and founder of Sharethrough.

“Hemingway always had this concept of the one true thing—our thought here was that’s what headlines are for,” according to Greenberg. “You should be able to deliver a lot of value for the brand within just a headline—you can turn your headline into that Hemingway-inspired one true sentence that tells the whole story, is straightforward, direct and honest.”

After the launch, Hemingway was featured on the website ProductHunt. After someone at Hemingway Ltd.—which owns all rights associated with the Ernest Hemingway Collection—noticed the post, the organization asked Sharethrough to change the name of the product.

Now known as Headline Analyzer, the tool has analyzed some 100,000 headlines, but it’s a cautionary tale about the legal implications and requirements that companies have to go through when naming a product, especially one that’s named after someone famous.

“Someone reached out and said, ‘Hey, we appreciate what you’re doing and we appreciate the nod, but you can’t use this name,” Greenberg said. “Because it’s such a distinct name, they somehow found a way to trademark across the board.”