Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024


Key Takeaways

  • The Ai Pin, a screen-less device from Humane, seems mentally exhausting to use and may overwhelm users with its lack of visual cues.
  • The device appears to cater to privileged individuals who can afford limited communication and can’t rely on visual information, making it unsuitable for those who need to multitask or rely on visual control.
  • The future of personal computing may lie in smartwatches rather than lapel pins, as they already have screens and can perform similar functions with the addition of intelligent assistance.


Humane introduced its Ai Pin, which it’s proposing as the future of personal computing, one that replaces our phones. The Pin is supposed to reside on your lapel, and, because it’s a screen-less device, it talks to you out of its speaker or shines a light onto your hand to show some limited information. Usually, I’m elated by the prospect of new, forward-looking technology, but this time, I was mentally exhausted just from watching the 10-minute introduction video showing off how the Ai Pin works.

The thought of having to mentally keep track of all my tasks and interactions without the help of looking at a calendar, a screen of apps, a history of messages, or all the other things that jog my memory throughout the day, gave me a spike of stress. It would overload my brain trying to manage the device rather than just use it.

I think humans are too visual to ever transition away from looking at a screen, of some sort. There are so many things to keep track of on a daily basis that we often need visual cues to keep us on track and subtly remind us where we’re going.

Granted, this is a new introduction, and orders for the Ai Pin (retailing for $699 plus a $24-a-month service fee) don’t even start until November 16, 2023. There’s a lot yet to learn about it once we get hands-on time to test the device, but I scoured the information provided by the company, and I can’t see how this device is for the masses.

It really seems like the Ai Pin comes from a place of privilege where the person wearing it can afford to only get a few important calls or texts throughout the day. In Humane’s world, it seems like the person wearing the Pin is the most important cog in the system, and most decisions flow from them to other people.

It’s not the person delivering Uber Eats who needs to see different orders and look at several things at once who can realistically only have the Pin living on their lapel. How could this person rely on a string of serial audio information to get their job done?

But it goes even further than that. Being able to see everything on our phones also gives us a sense of control over our digital lives. Giving up a full-color display would also mean a loss of control to some extent.

We’re able to quickly view who several different people are on a group text thread. We can see if a malicious URL is masquerading as one that it’s not. Even more importantly, we can always return to the phone to see that nothing has happened without our consent.

Do you ever wonder if you left the stove on, the garage door open, or a hair straightener plugged in when you’re too far from home to check? That’s the feeling I could imagine at the end of a long day, wondering if I actually sent the text at 9 AM that I meant to or if something else got done. Hopefully, the artificial intelligence on Ai Pin is smart enough to understand requests like, “Who did I text today?,” “What did I say, again?,” or “Did the message seem a little harsh?”

Even if you could do all the things you need to do from the Pin, keeping track of all the information that flows in and out of our daily schedules seems like too much for a device without a screen. It could create more of a cognitive load to carry. The Ai Pin will almost certainly help alleviate being tied to a phone all day, but I think that will have more to do with it being a bottleneck, rather than simplifying all of the communication and interactions.


Laser display from Ai Pin on a hand
Humane

Showing media controls from the Laser Ink Display on a hand

Some might argue there is a screen because the Ai Pin uses a Laser Ink Display to shine a light and show information on the palm of your hand. To navigate that single-color information panel, you’ll tilt your hand left, right, up, or down and then tap your fingers together to select. I disagree that this is even close to having a screen.

To be clear, I haven’t used an Ai Pin yet, so I don’t know how navigating the limited interface will feel in practice. What I do know is that navigating Meta’s Quest 3 user interface (UI) with my hands, pinching and scrolling, is often painfully slow and tedious. This is true of navigating an E-Ink screen with its visible refresh times as well.

Any type of device like eReaders or the Quest 3 that introduces even microscopic delays ends up feeling cumbersome. If a device’s interface isn’t moving as fast as we’re thinking and trying to interact with it, then that introduces more mental load as we try to deal with its shortcomings. We start wondering, how can this be sped up? Do I really need to be doing this now? Is it worth the time and effort? The answer for me has almost always been no, it’s not worth the time or effort.

If the Pin didn’t create enough vagueness in its functional ability that you’ll need to uncover, there’s also a host of light colors you have to commit to memory and try to decipher—likely at inopportune times when you’re out in the world, living your best life. The top “Beacon” light will show color-coded notifications based on different activities, like a trusted contact sending a message. The front “Trust Light” is supposedly for other people, but I don’t understand how they’ll figure out a color’s meaning.

The Post-Phone World

If you’re betting on a world without phones or devices without screens, you must be getting incredible odds because that’s a wild, risky gamble. Something will ultimately surpass the current phone form factor, eventually, but I doubt we’ve really gotten a glimpse at what that is yet. Modern smartphones have legs.

But if I’m optimistic about what Humane is proposing, about a do-it-all operating system powered by artificial intelligence, then it seems like the most realistic future is one where smartwatches are our digital hubs, not lapel pins.

My Apple Watch Ultra already has a sizable screen capable of typing out messages, looking at photos, getting a glimpse at a map, or checking email. Imagine trying to navigate an airport and board a plane with only the Ai Pin, continually trying to ask it for all your flight information while staying in contact with people. I have essentially managed that task with my Apple Watch before, partially thanks to Apple Wallet, Flighty, and the Messages app.

I like the idea of adding more intelligent, omnipresent assistance to my watch that can be summoned via voice or taps. I think my watch should be able to auto-translate different languages to converse with people. But beyond the camera on the Ai Pin, there’s nothing that Apple couldn’t feasibly do in the next year to give the Apple Watch the same feature set.

I don’t work on my smartwatch, and it’s not really made to be that type of device. By design, it mostly eliminates my constant use of it, but it still doesn’t prohibit vital tasks, whereas the Ai Pin seemingly eliminates whole swaths of functionality. If any current device could be the post-phone gadget, I would think it would be the smartwatch.

If nothing else, the Ai Pin will be interesting to try. Can it actually do what I need it to do while also getting rid of unnecessary distractions? That seems like a long shot, mostly because the Pin seems like a blackhole of vagueness. I’m getting exhausted again just thinking about needing to ask its AI what are all the things its AI can do.



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By John P.

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