Winner of AI gadget race might already be in your pocket

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It all sounded so promising. A crack team of former Apple designers and managers, backed by OpenAI chief Sam Altman, had invented an entirely new kind of wearable device for the ChatGPT era.

San Francisco-based Humane raised about $240mn on the promise its AI Pin could do to the iPhone what Apple did to the BlackBerry. The miniature device packs a microphone, speaker, camera and even a tiny laser projector into a magnetic lapel clip, resembling a Star Trek communicator designed by Apple.

But when, after six years in development, the AI Pin was finally released last month, it was panned by reviewers. Marques Brownlee, the YouTuber whose 18.8mn subscribers have made him a top tech tastemaker, declared it the “worst product I think I’ve ever reviewed”, adding that it was “bad at almost everything it does basically all the time”.

Humane’s inbuilt assistant took too long to answer queries and often got them wrong, Brownlee said, alongside complaints about the pin’s projector, battery life and overheating. Other tech critics largely agreed.

Humane’s chief executive Bethany Bongiorno has said the company is listening to feedback and plans to address some issues with software updates. But the early response to the AI Pin will be tough for the start-up to overcome. It also represents yet another setback for Silicon Valley’s long-running search for a device that can usurp the smartphone as the centre of our computing lives.

Humane was the standard bearer for several start-ups hoping to bottle ChatGPT’s lightning with new kinds of AI gadgets, including Rabbit, IYO and Brilliant Labs. Meta and Amazon are among the Big Tech companies developing AI smart glasses. They all hope a simpler kind of portable device that puts virtual assistants in consumers’ pockets, ears or faces might break the Apple-Google smartphone duopoly that has endured for more than a decade.

The idea of AI wearables is not new. Enough time may have passed for Silicon Valley to forget the debacle of Google Glass, the AI-powered headset that the search company launched in 2013 but largely abandoned just two years later. But the reaction to Humane will only fuel suspicion that the latest attempts to reboot Glass are just another manifestation of an AI funding bubble.

Hardware, Silicon Valley investors like to say, is hard. That’s why most of them prefer to invest in software. Start-ups building devices instead of apps need to wrangle supply chains and working capital, adding a financial burden to an inherently risky enterprise.

Inventing new hardware categories has proven tough even for the richest Big Tech companies. Smart speakers from Amazon and Google, while selling in the millions, have failed to become more than replacements for radios and egg timers. Meta has sunk tens of billions of dollars into its virtual reality business, with little revenue to show for it.

At least virtual reality headsets offer something — full digital immersion — that smartphones cannot. It is less clear whether the latest AI gadgets offer a genuine advantage over simply using an app.

Their advocates argue they offer a panacea for smartphone addiction and doomscrolling — a way to lift our eyes from our screens and make us more “present”, without giving up instant access to information or social connections. They also say that, by embedding cameras and microphones in glasses or badges, the AI can “see” what its user sees and hear what they hear. This “multimodal AI” can, in theory, answer questions, identify objects and landmarks, or translate text.

Meta has recently been hyping up its Ray-Ban smart glasses, which put cameras, microphones and speakers into a lightweight frame. Piggybacking on classic Ray-Ban designs is a smart way to smuggle AI devices into the mainstream. But for people that don’t want to wear cameras on their faces, the voice-enabled ChatGPT mobile app seems to work just as well for many queries.

Seventeen years into the iPhone era, the smartphone has become indispensable to more than half the world’s population. And the increasing ubiquity of wireless headphones makes them a more likely interface for AI assistants than smart glasses or badges. The Humane disappointment shows just how far generative AI has to go before it can replace the endless utility of a smartphone. For the foreseeable future, the best AI device is the one that’s already in your pocket.

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