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Humane's AI pin wants to free you from your phone| GuyWhoKnowsThings


One recent afternoon, I held a bagel in front of me and said, “Look and tell me if this is healthy.”

A monotone voice responded that the bun was unhealthy because it was high in carbohydrates, which could contribute to weight gain.

I wasn't talking to a keto-obsessed techie. It was the Ai Pin, a small $700 computer that featured a virtual assistant that pulled data from OpenAI (the research firm behind the ChatGPT chatbot), Google, Microsoft and others to answer questions and perform tasks.

Shaped like a lapel pin that may be a throwback to “Star Trek,” it attaches to your clothing with magnets and is supposed to offload tasks you'd normally do with a smartphone, like taking notes, searching the Internet and taking photos. . Instead of a screen, the pin shines a green laser into your hand to display text. The device includes a camera, speaker and cellular connection.

The innovative design of the Ai Pin, made by the startup Humane, generated a stir when it was presented at the end of last year. Companies like OpenAI, Microsoft and Salesforce have made a bold bet – to the tune of $240 million in funding for Humane – that artificially intelligent hardware like the Ai Pin will become the next big thing after the smartphone. (The New York Times sued OpenAI and Microsoft last year for using copyrighted news articles without permission to train chatbots).

Humane said its goal with Ai Pin was to offer technology that helps people avoid screens and maintain eye contact.

I liked the sleek aesthetic and concept of the pin. At times he was helpful, like when he suggested items to pack for my recent trip to Hawaii. But since I used it for two weeks, it had obvious defects. His answers were often unpleasant, as with the bagel, or incorrect, as when he said the square root of 49 was 49. Additionally, the Times' Ai Pin photo shoot ended prematurely when the device overheated and shut down.

You wouldn't pay $700 for this pin, let alone the $24 a month subscription required to use your data services, including your T-Mobile cellular plan. But consider that my curiosity has been piqued.

Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, husband and wife founders of Humane, who worked at Apple, said the updates issued through its servers would fix many of the bugs it had encountered, including heat issues and shoddy math.

“It's a journey and we're just at the beginning,” Ms. Bongiorno said. “The first version is never the entire vision.”

This was my experience with the Ai Pin.

Since Ai Pin lacks a screen, users configure their accounts and other settings on the Humane website. To unlock the device with a passcode, extend your hand to project a green laser into your palm. Pulling your hand out increases the number, while pulling it in decreases it, and you select each digit by pinching two fingers on the same hand.

The laser can be used to modify other settings, such as connecting to a Wi-Fi network, and can display a text transcript of the virtual assistant's responses. Humane said the laser was designed to be used for no more than nine minutes, but for me it lasted about three before Ai Pin complained that it was too hot and turned off.

Beyond unlocking the pin with the laser, you'll control the Ai Pin primarily with finger taps and your voice. The advantage of putting a virtual assistant on my shirt became evident as I moved around and thought about the many things I had to do.

With a finger pressed on the Ai Pin, I could call the assistant and ask it to add tasks to my to-do list. This feature shined when I was packing for my Hawaii vacation and adding items to my packing list, including t-shirts and swimsuits. When I asked the pin to suggest other items to pack for my trip there, he recommended a hat, sunscreen, and other relevant items. Very cool.

However, the Ai Pin was less useful in other situations. When I was in Hawaii last week, I was having trouble remembering the name of a food truck near my hotel that served loco moco, so I asked the attendant to look it up for me. He said that food truck couldn't be found, which led me to look on my phone.

An important feature of Ai Pin is the ability to translate a conversation into another language in real time. With a finger pressed on the pin, you could set a language to translate to, such as Mandarin. When I held two fingers on the pin and spoke a sentence in English, Ai Pin said it in Mandarin and vice versa.

I tested this with several other languages, including Spanish, French, and Indonesian. I confirmed that the interpreter was generally correct, although when converting from English to Mandarin, he incorrectly translated “good morning” to “da jia hao,” which means “hello everyone.”

Humane includes a feature called Vision in Ai Pin, which is labeled “beta” to indicate that it is not finished. The device uses its camera and artificial intelligence to analyze its surroundings and provide information about what it is looking at. This is what led me to my peculiar bagel experience, which became even stranger when I asked more questions.

I asked the pin how to make the bagel more delicious and he proceeded to explain how to make bagels from scratch. In the end, I asked the pin for suggestions for sandwiches that could be made with the bagel. He generated a long list of ideas, including chickpea salad sandwiches, Sloppy Joes and cucumber sandwiches with green chutney.

On vacation I visited a botanical garden and asked the pin to identify a flower. “The flower is yellow with red stripes inside,” the pin said. This was correct, but he did not answer my question.

“It's a Solandra maxima,” my wife said. She took a photo of the flower with her phone and uploaded it to a Google Images search. I felt embarrassed.

Humane said it was constantly working to improve the Vision feature.

Like a smartphone, the Ai Pin has its own phone number and mobile data connection for making phone calls and playing music, and its camera can be used to take photos and videos.

This is where the Ai Pin performed especially poorly. For something designed to make you spend less time on your phone, it's no better than a smartphone for any of those tasks. Photos and videos taken with the camera appear dimly lit and blurry. To make a phone call, you can ask the assistant to call someone in your address book, but to dial a new number, you dictate the digits. For music, the device currently only works with Tidal, an unpopular music streaming service.

Bongiorno said Ai Pin allowed him to take more spontaneous photos without a screen getting in the way. But for me this was a disadvantage. Without a viewfinder, the photos seemed poorly framed.

While the Ai Pin was occasionally useful and impressive, it was just misguided, useless, or inefficient enough to send me back to my phone.

Gary Marcus, an artificial intelligence entrepreneur, said the mistakes Ai Pin made, like with the bagel, were a result of so-called hallucinations, the tendency of AI to guess and make things up when it can't find the right answer. That's a problem that remains unsolved in many AI technologies, including ChatGPT and Google's Gemini.

Ms. Bongiorno acknowledged that hallucinations were occurring with Gemini, the technology behind Ai Pin's Vision feature. She added that the technology would improve quickly with user feedback and that the company had already perfected the pin's reaction to bagels.

Marcus said no company yet had AI technology sophisticated enough to make a virtual assistant reliably answer questions.

“It's almost like a broken clock is right twice a day,” he said. “It's right sometimes, but you don't know how much of the time, and that greatly diminishes its value.”

However, there is a core idea worth preserving. I liked having an assistant on my shirt when it was actually useful. I'll put my hopes on future versions of the product, perhaps a cheaper one that lacks the camera and laser.


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