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HomeTechnologyThe Next Generation Device: Silicon Valley's Bold Sci-Fi Bet Beyond the Smartphone

The Next Generation Device: Silicon Valley’s Bold Sci-Fi Bet Beyond the Smartphone

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Inside a former horse stable in the San Francisco neighborhood of SoMa, a wave of gentle chirps emerged from small, blinking devices pinned to the chests of employees at a start-up called Humane. It was just weeks before the start-up’s gadget, the Ai Pin, would be revealed to the world — a culmination of five years, $240 million in funding, 25 patents, a steady drumbeat of hype and partnerships with a list of top tech companies, including OpenAI, Microsoft and Salesforce.

Their mission? No less than liberating the world from its smartphone addiction. The solution? More technology.

Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, Humane’s husband-and-wife founders, envision a future with less dependency on the screens that their former employer, Apple, made ubiquitous. Artificial intelligence “can create an experience that allows the computer to essentially take a back seat,” Mr. Chaudhri said.

They’re billing the pin as the first artificially intelligent device. It can be controlled by speaking aloud, tapping a touch pad or projecting a laser display onto the palm of a hand. In an instant, the device’s virtual assistant can send a text message, play a song, snap a photo, make a call or translate a real-time conversation into another language. The system relies on A.I. to help answer questions (“What’s the best way to load the dishwasher?”) and can summarize incoming messages with the simple command: “Catch me up.”

The technology is a step forward from Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. It can follow a conversation from one question to the next, without needing explicit context. It’s also capable of editing a single word in a dictated message, rather than requiring the user to correct an error by repeating the text from beginning to end, as other systems do. And it does it from a gadget that’s reminiscent of the badges worn in Star Trek.

To tech insiders, it’s a moonshot. To outsiders, it’s a sci-fi fantasy.

At Humane, there’s deep anxiety about the weeks ahead. The tech industry has a large graveyard of wearable products that have failed to catch on. Humane will begin shipping the pins next year. It expects to sell around 100,000 pins, which will cost $699 and require a $24 monthly subscription, in the first year.

For the start-up to succeed, people will need to learn a new operating system, called Cosmos, and be open to getting new phone numbers for the device. They’ll need to dictate rather than type texts and trade a camera that zooms for wide-angle photos. They’ll need to be patient because certain features, like object recognition and videos, won’t be available initially. And the pin can sometimes be buggy, as it was during some of the company’s demos for The New York Times.

To tech insiders, it’s a moonshot. To outsiders, it’s a sci-fi fantasy.

At Humane, there’s deep anxiety about the weeks ahead. The tech industry has a large graveyard of wearable products that have failed to catch on. Humane will begin shipping the pins next year. It expects to sell around 100,000 pins, which will cost $699 and require a $24 monthly subscription, in the first year.

For the start-up to succeed, people will need to learn a new operating system, called Cosmos, and be open to getting new phone numbers for the device. They’ll need to dictate rather than type texts and trade a camera that zooms for wide-angle photos. They’ll need to be patient because certain features, like object recognition and videos, won’t be available initially. And the pin can sometimes be buggy, as it was during some of the company’s demos for The New York Times.

Sam Altman, OpenAI’s chief executive, said in an interview that he expected A.I. to be “a huge part” of how we interact with computers. He has invested in Humane as well as another A.I. company, Rewind AI, that plans to make a necklace that will record what people say and hear. He’s also discussed teaming up with Jony Ive, Apple’s former chief designer, to create an A.I. gadget with a similar ambition to Humane.

Humane has the advantage of being the first of those A.I.-focused devices to become available, but Mr. Altman said in an interview that was no guarantee of success. “That will be up to customers to decide,” he said. “Maybe it’s a bridge too far,” he said, “or maybe people are like, ‘This is much better than my phone.’” Plenty of technology that looked like a sure bet ends up selling for 90 percent off at Best Buy, he added.

Ms. Bongiorno, 40, and Mr. Chaudhri, 50, have a marriage of contrasts. They met at Apple in 2008. Mr. Chaudhri was working on its human interface, defining the swipes and drags that control iPhones. Ms. Bongiorno was a program manager for the iPhone and iPad. They worked together until they left Apple in late 2016.

Mr. Chaudhri and Ms. Bongiorno had developed concepts for two A.I. products: a women’s health device and the pin. Sitting beneath a palm tree on a cliff above the ocean at Mr. Benioff’s Hawaiian home in 2018, they explained both devices. “This one,” Mr. Benioff said, pointing at the Ai Pin, as dolphins breached the surf below, “is huge.” “It’s going to be a massive company,” he added.

They experimented in secret with hardware components and built a virtual assistant, like Siri or Alexa, working with customized language models based, in part, on OpenAI’s offerings.

The device’s most sci-fi element — a laser that projects a text menu onto a hand — started inside a box the size of a matchbook. It took three years to miniaturize it to be smaller than the size of a golf tee.

Humane established a company culture that borrowed from Apple, including its secretiveness. During its experimentation phase, the start-up created intrigue by announcing high profile investors like Mr. Altman and making grandiose — if vague — public statements about building “the next shift between humans and computing.” Humane also retained Apple’s obsession with design details, from its device’s curved corners and compostable white packaging to the Japanese-style toilets at the company’s stark office.

But Humane departed from Apple’s rigid and demanding culture in certain ways. The company encouraged staff to work together, question plans and speak up.

José Benitez Cong, a longtime Apple executive who considered himself retired, joined Humane, in part, for redemption. Holding the Light

A haunting whoosh filled the room, and two dozen Humane employees, seated around a long white table, carefully concentrated on the sound. It was just before the Ai Pin’s release, and they were evaluating its rings and beeps. The pin’s “personic” speaker (a company portmanteau of “personal” and “sonic”) is critical, since many of its features rely on verbal and audio cues.

The device is arriving at a time when excitement and skepticism for A.I. hit new highs each week. Before Humane even released a product, its backers had valued it at $850 million.

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