AI gadgets are (and will continue to be) absolutely useless

Rabbit R1 and Humane AI Pin

After reading as many reviews as I could find on the Rabbit R1 and the Humane AI Pin1 (too many to list here, but they’re just a quick search away), the overwhelming consensus is that these devices are just plain bad. This line from the Endgadget Rabbit R1 review made me laugh:

I suppose you could argue that the $199 Rabbit R1 is a good deal compared to the $699 Humane AI Pin (which also requires a $24 monthly subscription), but that’s like saying rabbit droppings don’t smell bad compared to dog poop. Technically true! But in the end it’s all still shit.

But let’s imagine if the above gadgets weren’t riddled with bugs and technical shortcomings. What if they had…

  • reliable “artificial intelligence” features
  • great battery life and performance
  • good cameras
  • a nice display (or projector? lol)
  • loud, clear speakers

Sound familiar? It’s a smartphone.

Part of what makes these new “AI devices” bad are the fact that they seem to be little more than technical demos that should have never shipped in the state they’re in, but what if they worked flawlessly—then what? Besides a voice-controlled interface (which your phone can do as well, thanks to accessibility features), what would a dedicated AI device give you that your smartphone isn’t already capable of doing better?

A large majority (in other words: all) smartphone users watch videos on their phone, capture/send/look at photos, and many (many) people play games, so for an AI device to replace your phone one day, they absolutely have to have a screen (a hand projector’s not going to cut it). Then you need to add some kind of visual UI for all the edge cases that a voice interface can’t handle and you end up at the exact same spot we’re already at with our phones today.

Even if AI devices aren’t meant to replace your phone (which I think they are only claiming because there’s no way what they shipped now could possibly do so), there’s still no reason to use it in addition to your phone, so I’m looking at it from the perspective that the only possible reason for an AI device to exist is to eventually be good enough to be a smartphone replacement.

In my opinion, they can’t (and never will). I’m not saying we won’t all be walking around with “AI devices” one day (we will), but it’ll be exactly what we’re carrying around now: our phones.

“One more thing…”

I understand the motivation behind these products and why the companies want to try to convince us (or investors) that these dedicated AI devices are the next greatest thing after the smartphone. These companies want that iPhone success story (who wouldn’t?). Unfortunately (for them) an “AI device” is not the product that’s going to do it.

The problem is, human beings are visual, tactile creatures. We like seeing, holding, and interacting with nice things. I believe that’s true even for the non-nerd segment of the population. Commandeering your devices by voice is neat and looks cool in science fiction movies, but is that really how we want to primarily interact with our devices? I don’t think so.

As a small anecdote, I use Siri on my iPhone for these reasons:

  • Queries that are more convenient than doing an internet search.
  • Getting driving directions for the GPS.
  • Playing music.
  • Interacting with “smart home” devices around the house.
  • Turning on/off alarms and setting reminders.
  • When I’m not able to touch or look at my phone (driving, cooking, etc).

I suspect that list will expand as Siri and other voice assistants get “smarter” in the coming years (thanks to advancements in AI tech), but I don’t see myself (or anyone else) wanting to primarily interact with my devices in this manner.

AI assistants are just that: assistants. You use them for tasks that you don’t really want to do (but need to do), to get answers to specific queries, to do things that are more of a hassle to do manually yourself, or when you can’t look at or touch your device. For everything else, chances are you like seeing and interacting with what it is you’re doing—you are human, after all.

Quick aside on accessibility: I’m talking about the general public, not those who have disabilities that prevent them from visually or physically interacting with their devices. For those users, if an “AI device” can do it better than a smartphone, there may well be a market for that (but I’m not convinced—smartphone accessibility is only getting better). Anyway, the Rabbit R1 and Humane AI Pin are marketed to the general public, so my point still stands in regards to them.

My cynical (but realistic) perspective

It took a pretty elementary level of thinking for me to come to the conclusion that the best hope for a AI device is to basically become a smartphone, so I’m convinced that the people behind these AI gadgets (who are certainly smarter than me) must know that’s the case as well. That leaves only one possibility:

They are capitalizing on the AI trend to get funding from gullible investors, some sales from early adopters/tech enthusiasts, and will abandon these products as hastily as they were shipped.

They’ll blame it on poor sales, yada yada, but you can’t tell me they used these devices themselves and didn’t know they would flop. Do you remember the relatively recent NFT craze that came and went? It’s not a coincidence that a number of people behind some of these new “AI companies” cropping up were also involved with NFTs and iffy “Web3” products when those were the buzzwords of the day.

Too early to judge?

When smartphones first came out, they (obviously) weren’t as good as they are now. Displays were small and lacked resolution. Performance was slow. There were no “AI” features (voice assistants), cameras weren’t good, speakers weren’t great, etc. But there was a magic to the smartphone that gave us something we never had before: a pocket-sized computer that could browse the “real” web, plus all the features our phones were already doing at the time (and more: music, calculator, notes, photos, etc).

The iPhone also nailed its primary input method on day one: touch. Once we got third-party apps, the smartphone finally solidified itself as an integral part of our daily lives (for better or worse). So is it just the early days of AI devices and they just need some time to get better? Clearly not.

What about AI in general?

To be clear, my criticism thus far has been about dedicated “AI devices” and not about AI technology itself. There is a lot of actual value in AI and I think there are number of really great use-cases for it. For instance, anything to do with data analysis, pattern recognition, and a plethora of other things that can make our lives (and jobs) easier.

There’s tasks that AI can perform better and faster than humans, similar to how a calculator is better at adding numbers. The value of AI technology is how it can augment our existing capabilities to make us more efficient. It’s a progression of what “computers” have been doing for us since their inception.

While there is definitely an “AI craze” going on right now (namely around generative AI and devices like the R1 and Pin) that’s drowning out some of the really compelling uses for the technology, I think the buzz will die down eventually and we’ll actually start benefiting from AI technology as it gets further integrated into our existing devices, software, and workflows. We’re already getting some glimpses as to what that might look like, but it’s definitely not the Rabbit R1 or the Humane AI Pin.

So do yourself a favor and be wary of dedicated “AI devices” like the ones we’ve seen so far. They are gimmicks whose sole purpose at best is to make a quick buck from anyone gullible enough to buy into the tech industry’s current hype of the week.

  1. I linked to Wikipedia instead of the respective company websites because I don’t expect them to stick around for very long. ↩︎