Last week Humane unveiled an AI Pin you wear on your chest, buy a monthly mobile subscription for, and summon when needed. At $700, the reaction to a screenless device with no apps and a $24/month additional cost has not been pleasant. Much of the reporting and commentary since has been negative, even derogatory, and many pundits have predicted its failure. Well yes, it will almost certainly flop, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. Especially in the context of some insightful words Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently shared on Reddit.
Ars Technica calls the AI Pin “a bizarre cross between Google Glass and a pager” with a “a creepy in-your-face camera.” Business Insider says it’s “awkward” and can’t replace your phone. Techcrunch says it “somewhat resembles Narrative Clip, the ill-fated lifelogging camera.”
“If you’re wearing both the Humane AI pin and the Meta Raybans and touch both at the same time, a screenshot of your life is taken and uploaded to the cloud,” a jokester quipped on Threads.
But at base, the AP Pin is an attempt to bring ambient computing to the human experience. Forget the specs and hardware capabilities: the 13MP camera, GPS, cellular connection, accelerometer, light sensor, mic, speaker, mini-projector for visual communication, and magnetic stick-on battery pack. The point is omnipresent AI assistance via ChatGPT in your life, without sticking a pane of glass — or an XR headset like Apple Vision Pro — between you and real life.
At minimum, that’s interesting. Fully explored, it might mean a new way of integrating computing into our lives.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates talked about AI’s impact on our devices recently via one of his less official outlets: his Reddit account. One of the things he said is that apps will die.
“To do any task on a computer, you have to tell your device which app to use. You can use Microsoft Word and Google Docs to draft a business proposal, but they can’t help you send an email, share a selfie, analyze data, schedule a party, or buy movie tickets,” Gates wrote. “In the next five years, this will change completely. You won’t have to use different apps for different tasks. You’ll simply tell your device, in everyday language, what you want to do.”
In other words, AI is the interface.
It’s almost like Humane and Bill Gates were working together, because Humane’s press release explains the lack of apps or an app store this way:
“An entirely new AI software framework, the Ai Bus, brings Ai Pin to life and removes the need to download, manage, or launch apps. Instead, it quickly understands what you need, connecting you to the right AI experience or service instantly.
It’s an interesting idea, and it’s likely also a correct one. Apps are an interface to accomplish a task, but the best interface is simply doing the requested action. Star Trek’s virtual omniscient ship AI didn’t ask Captain Picard to install an app when he asked a question, and while ChatGPT has plugins and now allows subscribers to create vertical-focused versions of itself, it doesn’t have apps per se. An app to order a pizza is significantly more friction than just asking Siri, or Google, or Alexa, or ChatGPT, to get it done.
Smartphones have been the most disruptive and powerful way to bring the power of computing into virtually every aspect of our lives. But the interface they’ve been given — the pane of glass, the grid of apps — has guided that evolution as much as it has enabled it.
Three years ago I suggested that Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa would be an AI abstraction layer over apps. And I warned app developers that AI assistants were an existential danger to apps’ existence. It’s as much a warning to brands who rely on mobile apps to connect to their customers as to developers:
“In the stone ages of mobile a couple of years ago, you actually had to tap on an app icon and open an app in order to access its functionality,” I wrote. “While backwards, onerous, and tedious, this ensured that if I was ordering Air Jordans from Shoe Giant #1 or a Big Mac from Ronald McDonald, I would have at least a couple of interactions with the Nike brand or McDonalds … today, Google announced that “Hey Google” is the new front door to your app’s functionality.”
The Humane AI Pin is an attempt to usher in something like that reality.
It’s likely fatally flawed, however, in costing as much as the smartphone it wants to replace, while providing significantly less functionality. As a computer — even one held in your hand — a smartphone is a general-purpose machine, adaptable to precisely Humane’s goals with AI Pin, while retaining additional functionality thanks to its screen and other capabilities. Humane’s AI Pin is a computer too, even if one that offloads much of its compute and intelligence to the cloud in the form of ChatGPT, but its use cases are more limited because its input and output modalities are much more limited.
Whereas you can only tap and talk to the AI Pin, you can do both on a smartphone, and you can (multi)touch with much higher fidelity and confidence. Both device classes allow visual input via cameras, but only one has multiple cameras facing multiple directions. And while you can project some green text onto your hand or surface with the AI Pin, your smartphone’s screen is clearly much more capable.
None of which is to say the AI Pin is useless or even bad. In fact, for the use cases the Humane team has identified — getting less trapped in our smartphones, and participating more in real life — the AI Pin’s simplifications could even be a positive.
But when people are deciding on a device to buy, most won’t buy the smartphone and the AI Pin. They’re more likely to buy the device that does is essential — the smartphone — and not also get the expensive and less-functional AI companion.
But Humane’s new tech is probably telling us something about the future development of smartphones and other devices, and not just its own current first iteration of an AI Pin.
“Agents are not only going to change how everyone interacts with computers,” Bill Gates wrote just a few days ago, talking about smart Ai helpers. “They’re also going to upend the software industry, bringing about the biggest revolution in computing since we went from typing commands to tapping on icons.”
If iOS and Android are platforms, and apps are the things we load onto those platforms, this changes everything.
“Agents will be the next platform,” Gates says.