Humane’s AI Pin Wants to Free You From Your Phone

On a 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 bagel was unhealthy because it was high in carbohydrates, which could contribute to weight gain.

I wasn’t talking to a tech bro obsessed with the ketogenic diet. This was the Ai Pin, a $700 tiny computer featuring a virtual assistant pulling 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 would normally do with a smartphone, like taking notes, searching the web and shooting photos. Instead of a screen, the pin shines a green laser on your hand to show text. The device includes a camera, speaker and cellular connection.

The novel design of the Ai Pin, which was made by the start-up Humane, generated buzz when it was unveiled late last year. Companies including OpenAI, Microsoft and Salesforce have placed 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 the Ai Pin was to offer technology that would help people avoid screens and maintain eye contact.

I liked the chic aesthetic and concept of the pin. It was occasionally helpful, like when it suggested items to pack for my recent trip to Hawaii. But as I wore it for two weeks, it presented glaring flaws. Often, its responses were off-putting, like with the bagel, or wrong, like when it said the square root of 49 was 49. Also, The Times’s photo shoot of the Ai Pin ended prematurely when the device overheated and shut down.

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

Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, Humane’s husband-and-wife founders, who worked at Apple, said updates issued through its servers would address many of the glitches I had encountered, including heat issues and shoddy math.

“It’s a journey, and we are just at the start,” Ms. Bongiorno said. “The first version is never the entirety of the vision.”

Here’s how my experience wearing the Ai Pin went.

Since the Ai Pin lacks a screen, users set up their accounts and other settings on Humane’s website. To unlock the device with a passcode, hold out your hand to project a green laser onto your palm. Pulling your hand outward increases the number while pulling it inward decreases it, and you select each digit by pinching two fingers on the same hand.

The laser can be used to tweak other settings, like connecting to a Wi-Fi network, and it can show a text transcription of the virtual assistant’s answers. Humane said the laser was intended to be used for no longer than nine minutes, but for me, it lasted about three before the Ai Pin complained it was too hot and shut down.

Beyond unlocking the pin with the laser, you’ll control the Ai Pin mostly with finger taps and your voice. The advantage of pinning a virtual assistant to my shirt became clear when I was moving around and thinking about the many things I had to do.

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

However, the Ai Pin was less helpful in some other situations. When I was in Hawaii last week, I struggled to remember the name of a food truck near my hotel serving loco moco, so I asked the assistant to look it up for me. It said no such food truck could be found, leading me to search on my phone instead.

An important feature on the Ai Pin is the ability to translate a conversation into another language in real time. With one finger held down on the pin, I could set a language to translate to, such as Mandarin. When I held two fingers down on the pin and spoke a phrase in English, the 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 usually correct, though with converting English into Mandarin, it incorrectly translated “good morning” into “da jia hao,” which means “hello, everyone.”

Humane is including a feature called Vision on the Ai Pin, which is labeled “beta” to signal that it is unfinished. The device uses its camera and A.I. to analyze your surroundings and give information about what you are looking at. This is what led to my quirky experience with a bagel, which only got weirder when I asked more questions.

I asked the pin how to make the bagel more delicious, and it proceeded to explain how to make bagels from scratch. Eventually, I asked the pin to come up with suggestions for sandwiches that could be made with the bagel. It 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 on the 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 the flower with her phone and uploaded it into a Google Images search. I felt sheepish.

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

Similar to a smartphone, the Ai Pin has its own phone number and cellular data connection to place phone calls and play music, and its camera can be used to shoot photos and videos.

Here is where the Ai Pin especially underdelivered. For something designed to make you spend less time on your phone, it isn’t better than a smartphone at any of those tasks. Photos and videos taken with the camera look poorly lit and blurry. To place 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 works only with Tidal, an unpopular music streaming service.

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

While the Ai Pin was occasionally useful and impressive, it was wrong, unhelpful or inefficient enough times to drive me back to my phone.

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

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

Mr. Marcus said no company yet had A.I. technology that was sophisticated enough to make a virtual assistant answer questions reliably.

“It’s almost like a broken watch being right twice a day,” he said. “It’s right some of the time, but you don’t know which part of the time, and that greatly diminishes its value.”

Yet there is a kernel of an idea worth preserving. I liked having an assistant on my shirt when it was actually helpful. I’ll pin my hopes on future iterations of the product — perhaps a cheaper one that lacks a camera and a laser.

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