Silicon Valley’s big, bold sci-fi bet is on the device that comes after the smartphone

Silicon Valley’s big, bold sci-fi bet is on the device that comes after the smartphone

Inside a former horse stable in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, a flurry of sweet tweets came out of small, flashing devices taped to the chests of employees at a startup called Humine.

It was just weeks before the startup’s gadget, Ai Pin, was unveiled to the world — the culmination of five years, $240 million in funding, 25 patents, and a constant drumbeat of hype and partnerships with a list of top tech companies. , including OpenAI, Microsoft, and Salesforce.

Their mission? Nothing less than freeing the world from smartphone addiction. the solution? More technology.

Imran Chowdhury and Bethany Bongiorno, the founding couple of Human, envision a future that relies less on the screens that their former employer, Apple, made ubiquitous.

AI “can create an experience that allows the computer to take a back seat,” Chaudhry said.

They’re billing the Pin as the first AI-powered device. It can be controlled by speaking out loud, tapping on the touchpad, or projecting a laser screen onto the palm of the hand. In an instant, the device’s virtual assistant can send a text message, play a song, take a photo, make a call, or translate a real-time conversation into another language. The system relies on artificial intelligence to help answer questions (“What is the best way to load the dishwasher?”) and can summarize incoming messages with the simple command: “Catch me.”

This technology is a step up from Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. It can follow the conversation from one question to another, without the need for clear context. It is also able to edit a single word in a dictated message, rather than requiring the user to correct the error by repeating the text from beginning to end, as other systems do. It does this through a device reminiscent of the badges worn in Star Trek.

For tech insiders, this is a huge success. To outsiders, it’s science fiction.

At Humane, there is deep concern about the coming weeks. The tech industry has a large graveyard of wearable products that failed Catch. Humane will start shipping the pins next year. It expects to sell about 100,000 pins, which will cost $699 and require a $24 monthly subscription, in the first year. (Apple sold 381,000 iPods the year after its launch in 2001.)

For the startup to succeed, people will need to learn a new operating system called Cosmos, and be open to getting new phone numbers for the device. (The Pin comes with its own wireless plan.) They’ll need to dictate texts rather than type them and swap out a camera that zooms in for wide-angle photos. They will have to be patient because some features, such as object recognition and video clips, will not be available at first. The pin can sometimes be buggy, as was the case during some of the company’s demos to the New York Times.

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, said in an interview that he expects AI to be a “huge part” of how we interact with computers. He has invested in Humane as well as another AI company, Rewind AI, which plans to make a necklace that records what people say and hear. He’s also discussed collaborating with Jony Ive, Apple’s former chief designer, to create an AI tool with a similar ambition for humanity.

Humane has the advantage of being the first AI-focused devices to become available, but Mr. Altman said in an interview that was no guarantee of success. “It will be up to the customers to decide,” he added. “Maybe it’s out of reach, or maybe people will say, ‘This is so much better than my phone,'” he said. A lot of technology that seemed like a sure bet ends up being sold for 90 percent off at Best Buy, he added.

Ms. Bongiorno, 40, and Mr. Choudhury, 50, have an ambivalent marriage. He shaves his head bald and speaks in a soft, soothing yogi’s voice. She wears her long blonde hair over one shoulder and exudes the enthusiasm of a team captain. They are both wearing black Jobsian clothes.

They met at Apple in 2008. Choudhury was working on human interface, defining the swipe-and-drag operations that control iPhones. Ms. Bongiorno was a program manager for iPhone and iPad. They worked together until they left Apple in late 2016.

A Buddhist monk named Brother Spirit led them to humanity. Mr. Chowdhury and Ms. Bongiorno have developed concepts for two AI products: a women’s health device and a pin. Brother Spirit, whom they met through an acupuncturist, recommended sharing ideas with his friend Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.

Sitting under a palm tree on a cliff above the ocean at Mr. Benioff’s Hawaiian home in 2018, they demonstrated both devices. “This is huge,” Mr. Benioff said, pointing to I-Bean, as dolphins breached the waves below.

“It’s going to be a huge company,” he added.

Humane’s goal was to replicate the utility of the iPhone without any of the components that get us all addicted — the dopamine hit of swiping to refresh a Facebook feed or scrolling to watch a new TikTok video. They secretly experimented with hardware components and built a virtual assistant, like Siri or Alexa, that worked with custom language models based in part on OpenAI’s offerings.

The device’s most sci-fi element — a laser that projects a text menu onto a hand — started out inside a matchbook-sized box. It took three years to reduce it to the size of a golf ball.

Humane built a company culture that it borrowed from Apple, including its secrecy. During its pilot phase, the startup generated curiosity by announcing high-profile investors like Mr. Altman and making exaggerated — if vague — public statements about building “the next transformation between humans and computing.” Humane also retained Apple’s obsession with design details, from its device’s curved corners and biodegradable white packaging to the Japanese-style toilets in the company’s stark office.

But Humane has departed from Apple’s strict and demanding culture in certain ways. The company encouraged employees to work together, come up with plans and talk.

Jose Benitez Cong, a longtime Apple executive who considered himself retired, joined Humane, in part, for redemption. Mr Benitez-Kong said he was “disgusted” at what the iPhone had done to society, noting that his son was able to imitate a swiping motion at the age of one. “This might be something that could help me get over my guilt of working on this device.” “An iPhone,” Mr. Benitez-Kong said.

A disturbing sound filled the room, and about two dozen Humane employees sat around a long white table, focusing carefully on the sound. It was just before Ai Pin was released, and they were evaluating its loops and sounds. The pin’s “personal” speaker (a portmanteau of the words “personal” and “audio”) is crucial, since many of its features rely on verbal and audio cues.

Mr. Chowdhury praised the “reassurance” of a single peep and Ms. Bongiorno praised the “more physical” sounds of the pin’s laser. “It’s like you actually hold the light,” she marveled.

Less reassuring: That sound that plays when you send a text message. “It feels ominous,” Ms. Bongiorno said. Others around the table said it felt like a ghost, or almost like you’d made a mistake. Someone thought it was a Halloween joke.

Ms. Bongiorno wanted the sound of sending a text message to be as satisfying as the sound of a trash can in one of Apple’s older operating systems. “Like ‘thunk,'” she said.

The device arrives at a time when excitement and skepticism about artificial intelligence is reaching new highs every week. Industry researchers warn of the existential risks of this technology, and regulators are keen to crack down on it.

However, investors are eagerly pouring money into AI startups. Before Humane launched a product, its backers valued it at $850 million.

The company tried to promote a message of trust and transparency, even though it spent most of its existence operating in secret. Humane’s Ai Pins have what the company calls a “light of confidence” Which flashes when the device is recording. (The user must tap the pin to “wake it up.”) Humane said it did not sell user data to third parties or use it to train its AI models.

In the months leading up to its introduction, Humane had generated anticipation. In April, Mr. Chaudhry showed off his pin laser projector during a TED talk. (He said people later accused him of faking the demo, but he confirmed it was real.) In September, in an echo of Apple’s launch of its fashion-friendly Watch, supermodel Naomi Campbell wore a Human Pin — barely noticeable without knowing it. To look for it – on a gray Coperni jacket on the runway at Paris Fashion Week.

Humane’s supporters have a deft way of dismissing doubts about its prospects – they cite the first iPod. This strange, heavy device had only one use, which was to play songs, but it laid the foundation for the true revolution, smartphones. Likewise, Humane envisions an entire ecosystem of companies building features for its own operating system — an AI version of Apple’s App Store.

But first, raisins. In a demonstration in Humane’s corporate office of a feature that will be rolled out in a future version of the product, a software designer picked up a piece of chocolate cake and tapped the pin on his left breast. As he made a lively sound, he asked, “How much sugar is in this?”

“I’m sorry; I couldn’t look up how much sugar is in an oatmeal raisin muffin,” the virtual assistant said.

Mr. Chaudhry ignored the error. “To be fair, I have trouble telling the difference between chocolate cake and oatmeal raisin.”

A humanitarian organisation’s ambition to disrupt the smartphone is bold, creative and even irrational; The kind of thing Silicon Valley is supposed to be known for, but which critics bemoan, has in recent years turned into progressive banality, like selfie apps and robotic pizza trucks.

But even after months of wearing Ai pins all day, the Humane founders can’t completely disconnect from their screens. “Are we using our smartphones less?” Mr. Chowdhury asked. “We use it differently.”

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