Humane's Brilliant Failure

Humane launched its Ai Pin last week, after months of teasers, and it is both brilliant, and doomed, in one small package. 

Let’s start with what the device is, and where it is supposed to fit into the ecosystem of personal devices. The device is a rectangular small badge-like device that you wear on your shirt or jacket and it comes with a camera and small projector built in. The projector is in lieu of a screen, allowing you to see quick messages on your hand – or any other surface that is close by. The camera is there to identify items in your close proximity – the example demonstrated was showing the Pin a candy bar and asking “should I eat this”. 

The device comes with its own cellular service (at $24 per month by T-Mobile), as it is supposed to bring us to a world where we don’t need our smart phone. Yes, this is the device that is positioned to be a phone killer. And with that statement, the device is set on a path to failure, because – unless we drastically change our habits – we need a screen. Try browsing through your Facebook or Instagram posts with the text projected on your hand? No thanks. Add to that the fact that the device costs $699 in addition to thet monthly cellular bill… and did we mention that the device has a unique phone number, rather than acting as a companion to your phone because, of course, you don’t need your smartphone anymore. Oh boy.

But (and yes, there’s a but)  while the device is at best a tragically brave attempt to divert us from the current social media focused digital world, I cannot completely write off this device. What keeps drawing me back to this device is not the physical manifestation, but rather the clever AI-based agent that lurks beneath that banal badge-like surface. The contextual intelligence appears – based on the public demos – to be far better than Siri or any of the other agents available today. Those first-generation agents were designed to cover a broad range of use cases, from the smartphone to the smart speaker. The Ai Pin agent is designed specifically for a wearable device and is far better at the contextual responses as a result. 

It is, in other words, exactly what every smartwatch should have lurking inside it. Consider a connected smartwatch with this intelligence: it may not entirely replace the smartphone (clearly heresy to even suggest such a thing when most smartwatches are made by smartphone manufacturers) but the added AI would make the watch less of a “companion of convenience” to the phone and more of a device in and of itself. Yes, unlike the Ai Pin, the watch doesn’t have a projector (and doesn’t need one as it has a screen), nor a camera. But a camera is not needed to take the smartwatch to the next level. Rather, a combination of ear buds with an advanced AI agent inside the watch (or lurking in a nearby cloud of course) will provide a far more attuned solution compared to what we have today. Indeed, this is exactly what the smartwatch needs to grow partially beyond the smartphone’s shadow.

And so, what is to become of Humane? We’ve already mentioned one possible outcome – the slide into obscurity – but the more likely scenario is that a smartwatch/smartphone vendor may snap up the company for its AI smarts. After all, the company is on the correct path of trying to wrestle dominance away from the phone and towards a more wearable-based future. It’s just using the wrong physical manifestation for the journey ahead.