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Welcome to the AI gadget era

I’m just going to call it: we’ll look back on April 2024 as the beginning of a new technological era. That sounds grandiose, I know, but in the next few weeks, a whole new generation of gadgets is poised to hit the market. Humane will launch its voice-controlled AI Pin. Rabbit’s AI-powered R1 will start to ship. Brilliant Labs’ AI-enabled smart glasses are coming out. And Meta is rolling out a new feature to its smart glasses that allow Meta’s AI to see and help you navigate the real world.

There are many more AI gadgets to come, but the AI hardware revolution is officially beginning. What all these gadgets have in common is that they put artificial intelligence at the front of the experience. When you tap your AI Pin to ask a question, play music, or take a photo, Humane runs your query through a series of language models to figure out what you’re asking for and how best to accomplish it. When you ask your Rabbit R1 or your Meta smart glasses who makes that cool mug you’re looking at, it pings through a series of image recognition and data processing models in order to tell you that’s a Yeti Rambler. AI is not an app or a feature; it’s the whole thing.

It’s possible that one or many of these devices will so thoroughly nail the user experience and feature list that this month will feel both like the day you got your first flip phone and the day the iPhone made that flip phone look like an antique. But probably not. More likely, what we’re about to get are a lot of new ideas about how you interact with technology. And together, they’ll show us at least a glimpse of the future.

Humane’s AI Pin is not going to replace your phone — but it’s much easier to reach.
Photo: The Verge / Allison Johnson

The primary argument against all these AI gadgets so far has been that the smartphone exists. Why, you might ask, do I need special hardware to access all this stuff? Why can’t I just do it on the phone in my pocket? To that, I say, well, you mostly can! The ChatGPT app is great, Google’s Gemini is rapidly taking over the Android experience, and if I were a betting man, I’d say there’s a whole lot of AI coming to iOS this year. 

Smartphones are great! None of these devices will kill or replace your phone, and anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. But after so many years of using our phones, we’ve forgotten how much friction they actually contain. To do almost anything on your phone, you have to take the device out of your pocket, look at it, unlock it, open an app, wait for the app to load, tap between one and 40,000 times, switch to another app, and repeat over and over again. Smartphones are great because they’re able to contain and access practically everything, but they’re not actually particularly efficient tools. And they’re not going to get better, not as long as the app store business model stays the way it is.

The Rabbit R1 strikes me as kind of an iPod for AI.
Image: Rabbit CES 2024 presentation (YouTube)

The promise of AI — and I want to emphasize the word promise because nothing we’ve seen so far comes remotely close to accomplishing this — is to abstract all those steps and all that friction out of existence. All you need to do is declare your intentions — play music, navigate home, text Anna, tell me what poison ivy looks like — and let the system figure out how to get it done. Your phone contains multitudes, but it’s not really optimized for anything. An AI-optimized gadget can be easier to reach, quicker to launch, and alert to your input at all times.

The promise of AI is to abstract all those steps and all that friction out of existence

If that pans out, we might get not only a new set of gadgets but also a new set of huge companies. Google and Apple won the smartphone wars, and no company over the last decade has even come close to upsetting that app store duopoly. So much of the race to augmented reality, the metaverse, wearables, and everything else has been about trying to open up a new market. (On the flip side, it’s no accident that while so many other companies are building AI gadgets, Google and Apple are working hastily to shove AI into your phone.) AI might turn out to be just another flailing attempt from the folks that lost the smartphone wars. But it might also be the first general-purpose, all-things-to-all-people technology that actually feels like an upgrade. 

Obviously, the AI-first approach brings its own set of challenges. Starting with the whole “AI is not yet very good or reliable” thing. But even once we’re past that, all the simplicity by abstraction can actually turn into confusion. What if I text Anna in multiple places? What if I listen to podcasts in Pocket Casts and music in Spotify and audiobooks in Audible, and I have accounts with a bunch of other music services I never even use? What if the closest four-star coffee shop is a Starbucks, and I hate Starbucks? If I tell my AI device to buy something, what card does it use? What retailer does it pick? How fast will it ship? Automation requires trust, and we don’t yet have many reasons to trust AI.

Brilliant’s Frame glasses are mostly an accessory for your phone — at least for now.
Image: Brilliant Labs

So far, the most compelling approach seems to be a hybrid one. Both Humane and Rabbit have built complex web apps through which you can manage all your accounts, payment systems, conversation history, and other preferences. Rabbit allows you to actually teach your device how to do things the way you like. Both also have some kind of display — Humane, a laser projector, Rabbit, a small screen on the R1 — on which you can check the AI’s work or change the way it’s planning to do something. The AI glasses from Meta and Brilliant try to address these problems either by directing you to look at something on your phone or just by not trying to do everything for everyone. AI can’t do everything yet.

In many ways, it feels like it’s 2004 again. I’d bet that none of these new devices will feel like a perfectly executed, entirely feature-complete product — even the people who make these gadgets don’t think they’ve finished the job, no matter how self-serious their product videos might be. But before the iPhone turned the whole cellphone market into panes of glass, phones swiveled; they flipped; they were candy bars and clamshells and sliders and everything in between. Right now, everyone’s searching for “the iPhone of AI,” but we’re not getting that anytime soon. We might not get it ever, for that matter, because the promise of AI is that it doesn’t require a certain kind of perfected interface — it doesn’t require any interface at all. What we’re going to get instead are the Razr, the Chocolate, the Treo, the Pearl, the N-Gage, and the Sidekick of AI. It’s going to be chaos, and it’s going to be great.

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