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.”