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

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

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

I wasn't talking to a techie obsessed with the ketogenic diet. It was the Ai Pin, a tiny $700 computer equipped with a virtual assistant that pulls data from OpenAI (the research company behind the ChatGPT chatbot), Google, Microsoft and others to answer questions and perform tasks.

Shaped like a pin that could be a “Star Trek” throwback, it attaches to your clothes with magnets and is supposed to offload tasks you'd normally do with a smartphone, such as taking notes, searching the Web and taking photos. Instead of a screen, the pin shines a green laser on your hand to show the text. The device includes a camera, a speaker and a cellular connection.

The innovative design of the Ai Pin, made by start-up Humane, caused a stir when it was unveiled late last year. Companies including OpenAI, Microsoft and Salesforce have made bold bets – to the tune of $240 million in funding for Humane – that artificially intelligent hardware like Ai Pin will become the next big thing after the smartphone. (Last year the New York Times sued OpenAI and Microsoft 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 chic aesthetic and concept of the pin. Sometimes he was helpful, like when he suggested items to pack for my recent trip to Hawaii. But as I wore it for two weeks, it had obvious flaws. Often his answers were off-putting, as with the bagel, or wrong, as when he said the square root of 49 was 49. Furthermore, the Times' Ai Pin photo shoot ended prematurely when the device overheated and it's off.

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

Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, the husband-and-wife founders of Humane, who worked at Apple, said that updates released through its servers would fix many of the problems I'd encountered, including heat issues and poor calculations.

“It's a journey and we're just at the beginning,” Bongiorno said. “The first version never represents the totality of the vision.”

Here's how my experience with the Ai Pin went.

Since the Ai Pin doesn't have a screen, users set up their accounts and other settings on Humane's website. To unlock your device with a passcode, hold out your hand to project a green laser onto your palm. Pulling the hand outwards increases the number while pulling it inwards decreases it and each digit is selected by pinching two fingers of the same hand.

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

In addition to unlocking the pin with the laser, you will control the Ai Pin primarily with the touch of your fingers and your voice. The benefit of attaching a virtual assistant to my shirt became clear as I moved around and thought about the many things I needed to do.

By holding one finger on the Ai Pin, I could call the assistant and ask it to add tasks to my to-do list. This feature shined as I was packing for my Hawaii vacation and adding items to my packing list, including T-shirts and swimsuits. When I asked the bro to suggest other items to pack for my trip there, she recommended a hat, sunscreen, and other relevant items. Very nice.

However, the Ai Pin was less useful in some other situations. When I was in Hawaii last week, I struggled to remember the name of a food truck near my hotel that served loco moco, so I asked the assistant to look it up for me. He said he couldn't find such a food truck, leading me to search on my phone instead.

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

I've tested it with several other languages, including Spanish, French, and Indonesian. I confirmed that the interpreter was usually right, although when converting English to Mandarin, he incorrectly translated “good morning” to “da jia hao,” meaning “hello everyone.”

Humane includes a feature called Vision on Ai Pin, labeled “beta” to indicate that it is not completed. The device uses the camera and artificial intelligence to analyze its surroundings and provide information about what you are looking at. This is what led to my bizarre experience with a bagel, which got even stranger as I asked more questions.

I asked the pin how to make the bagel more delicious and he went on to explain how to make bagels from scratch. Finally, I asked the pin to suggest 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 holiday 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 it didn't answer my question.

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

Humane said it is constantly working to improve the Vision functionality.

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

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

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

While the Ai Pin was occasionally useful and impressive, it was sometimes wrong, useless, or inefficient at getting me back to my phone.

Gary Marcus, an artificial intelligence entrepreneur, said that the mistakes Ai Pin made, as with the bagel, were the result of so-called hallucinations, the tendency of artificial intelligence to guess and make things up when it can't find the answer right. This is 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 will improve quickly with user feedback and that the company has already perfected the pin's reaction to bagels.

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

“It's almost like a broken clock that runs twice a day,” he said. “Sometimes it's right, but you don't know what part of the time, and that greatly diminishes its value.”

Yet there is a core idea that is worth preserving. I liked having an assistant on my shirt when it was actually useful. I will pin my hopes on future iterations of the product, perhaps cheaper and without the camera and laser.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *