Will this make our smartphones go out of fashion?

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Imagine you’re on the bus or walking through the park when you remember that an important task has eluded you. You were supposed to send an email, attend a meeting, or meet a friend for lunch. Without missing a beat, simply say out loud what you forgot and the small device strapped to your chest or resting on the bridge of your nose will send the message, summarize the meeting or ping your buddy a lunch invitation. The job is done without ever having to poke your smartphone screen.

It’s the kind of utopian convenience that a growing wave of tech companies hope to realize through artificial intelligence. Generative AI chatbots like ChatGPT exploded in popularity last year, as search engines like Google, messaging apps like Slack, and social media services like Snapchat rushed to integrate the technology into their systems. But while AI add-ons have become a familiar sight in apps and software, the same generative technology is now making an attempt to join the realm of hardware as the first AI-powered consumer devices emerge and join our smartphones compete for space. .

One of the first out of the gate is the Ai Pin from Californian startup Humane. Only slightly larger than a can of Vaseline, it is a portable device that attaches to your shirt via a magnet. It can text, call, take photos and play music. But it doesn’t support apps and has no screen. Instead, it uses a laser to project a simple interface onto your outstretched palm, and the built-in AI chatbot can be instructed via voice commands to search the web or answer questions in much the same way you’d expect from ChatGPT .

“I plan to train Ai Pin to be my personal assistant and facilitate my writing and creative work,” says Virginia-based consultant Tiffany Jana, who has pre-ordered the device ahead of its initial US launch in April (Humane has not yet announced a full worldwide release schedule). She travels often and hopes it can take the place of an accompanying photographer and translator. “I don’t have all the assistants and the huge team that once supported me. I have always been a technophile and I enjoy ChatGPT.”

Facebook parent company Meta has already released AI-powered smart glasses in collaboration with Ray-Ban, and Chinese companies TCL and Oppo have followed suit with their own AI glasses. They all do pretty much the same thing as the Ai Pin and are marketed for the way they connect to an AI chatbot that responds to voice commands.

It’s a way to combat smartphone overuse by offering the same essential features without the addictive apps

If this all sounds remarkably similar to what the voice assistant on your smartphone or the Alexa in your living room is already capable of, that’s because it essentially is. “The use of AI in new devices is standard even today,” says David Lindlbauer, assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. “Everyone uses Google suggestions, Apple Siri to interact with their phone, or smart suggestions for apps on their phone.” The difference, he says, is that these new and future devices are trying to embed their AI capabilities in “a less intrusive and more ubiquitous way.”

That design intent is most evident in the upcoming pendant from US startup Rewind and software developer Tab AI Avi Schiffmann. These little devices are designed to dangle around your neck and passively record everything you hear and say throughout the day, before transcribing and summarizing the most important bits so you can read them back later at your leisure. They’re essentially productivity tools that bundle the kind of generative AI features you see elsewhere into a standalone device.

A target problem?

But why would you want a device that does little more than what your smartphone is already capable of? Partly to free yourself from the less welcome elements. Humane pitches the Ai Pin as a way to curb smartphone overuse by offering the same essential features without the addictive apps that keep us compulsively scrolling.

“An alcoholic is not addicted to the bottle, but to its contents,” says Christian Montag, head of molecular psychology at the University of Ulm in Germany, by analogy. Social media platforms in particular, he says, often have an interest in deliberately increasing screen time to serve us more ads or collect our personal data. And while experiments have shown that using a smartphone in grayscale mode reduces user retention, cutting out the screen altogether could have an even more profound effect.

It’s a cut that may seem counterintuitive to the tech world’s ever-growing appetite for new features and gadgets, but it may not be as strange as it first seems. “Many people wear headphones all day,” says Lindlbauer, “so it’s perfectly possible to resist the temptation of doom scrolling and turn to technology that provides constant but unobtrusive access to the digital world.”

Yet wearable technology has a patchy history. Google tried to popularize the idea of ​​smart glasses in 2013 with the launch of Google Glass. While there was no AI chatbot present, it was similarly designed to replace a smartphone that would provide information to users through a lens display and could respond to voice commands.

“Many consumers found Google Glass unfashionable and compared the product to cyborgs,” said Jannek Sommer, assistant professor at the department of business and management at the University of Southern Denmark. The first version of the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch also suffered from similar problems, with the advertising drawing a poorly received association between the device and the sci-fi gadgets of Hollywood films. “After taking this approach for several years,” Sommer says, “the industry slowly realized that their positioning was wrong.”

Indeed, the Ai Pin features a minimalist design and rounded corners, while Meta’s collaboration with Ray-Ban is indicative of the kind of sartorial credibility it hopes to earn. Even with wearable technology, though, looks aren’t everything. “While hype, novelty and fashion are key drivers in the wearables market, the industry’s inability to consistently provide consumers with an experience of practical value appears to be a serious barrier,” Sommer said. “And this speaks to the still relatively immature state of the technology.”

Nowhere was this better demonstrated than during Ai Pin’s debut reveal video. Asked to estimate the amount of protein in a handful of almonds, it confidently misrepresented the nuts’ nutritional value. Then, later in the revelation, the best place to view an upcoming solar eclipse was incorrectly advised. These “hallucinations” – where an AI model provides false information or makes up details – are common to all chatbots and similarly derailed the launch of Google’s AI chatbot, Bard, last year.

But even if these issues were resolved, wearable AI devices still face targeting issues. Samsung, Google and other manufacturers have already introduced AI-powered features into their latest smartphones, equipping them with the same productivity tools – namely message composing, translations and instant queries – that these wearable AI devices have. And last month, German telecom company Deutsche Telekom presented a smartphone concept that relies solely on AI and does not support apps at all.

“Most efforts in the near future will be focused on integrating generative AI into existing form factors, as this will provide more obvious commercial opportunities,” said Reece Hayden, senior analyst at global technology intelligence firm ABI Research. As such, it’s perhaps telling that Humane’s own CEO, Imran Chaudhri, has conspicuously refused to break down the time he spends using his Ai Pin versus his regular phone. Until we see an application of AI that necessitates a new form of device, our smartphones, laptops, and desktops will likely remain the primary way we interact with the technology.

Think bigger

Yet discussions are beginning to arise about these broader applications. For some, the future of technology lies not in how it can be integrated into existing platforms, but in how it can fundamentally change the way we access it. “You don’t have to use different apps for different tasks,” says former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates in a blog post outlining his vision. “You simply tell your device in everyday language what you want to do,” and then leave it to the device to figure out which apps, platforms, and information are needed to complete the task you set.

It is an idea that will be put into preliminary practice by the R1. Produced by Californian AI startup Rabbit, the R1 is a handheld device that looks a bit like a handheld gaming console and a lot like a powerful voice assistant. But instead of simply connecting to an AI chatbot that generates passive responses to your commands (like other wearable gadgets do), it’s designed to communicate directly with the apps on your phone on your behalf. So the idea is that the R1 acts as an all-in-one interface for your devices – a sort of central app that lets you control everything else.

“We don’t build products for new use cases; we are creating what we believe are better and more intuitive ways to address existing use cases,” said Jesse Lyu, CEO of Rabbit. He describes the R1 as a “digital companion” that won’t replace your smartphone, but will make it easier to use.

The value of that approach will become clear when the R1 is launched later this year. Although we can expect similar experimental devices to follow. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, is reportedly already in talks with former Apple chief designer Jony Ive to explore hardware ideas. And a group of Silicon Valley startups and heavyweights are now competing for the chips and processors these new devices need to power their AI models.

Whatever form these AI devices ultimately take, they will have a hard time competing with the globally connected, hyper-functional, intuitively controlled glass rectangles in most of our wallets – although smartphones, as ubiquitous as they seem, even have an expiration date . “The smartphone has only been with us for about 15 years,” says Lindlbauer. “I don’t want to believe that the smartphone is the pinnacle of technology, or that we will use smartphones in the same way we do now. [another] 15 years.”

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