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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 16 July 2024

Ambitious AI thing, interrupted

Days before gadget reviewers weighed in on the Humane Ai Pin, a futuristic wearable device powered by artificial intelligence, the founders of the company gathered their employees, asking them to brace themselves

Tripp Mickle, Erin Griffith Published 17.06.24, 05:57 AM

Days before gadget reviewers weighed in on the Humane Ai Pin, a futuristic wearable device powered by artificial intelligence, the founders of the company gathered their employees, asking them to brace themselves. The reviews might be disappointing, they warned.

The founders Bethany Bongiorno and Imran Chaudhri were right. In April, reviewers brutally panned the $699 product that Humane had marketed for a year. The Ai Pin was “totally broken” and had “glaring flaws”, some reviewers said. One declared it “the worst product I’ve ever reviewed.”

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A week later, Humane began talking to HP about selling itself for over $1 billion, three people with knowledge of the conversations said. Other potential buyers have emerged, although talks have been casual and no formal sales process has begun.

Humane retained Tidal Partners, an investment bank, to help navigate the discussions while also managing a new funding round that would value it at $1.1 billion.

The developments amount to a face-plant by Humane, which had positioned itself as a top contender among a wave of AI hardware makers. The San Francisco, US, company had raised $240 million from powerful Silicon Valley investors. Humane spent five years building a device to disrupt the smartphone— only to founder.

As of early April, Humane had received about 10,000 orders for the Ai Pin, a fraction of the 1,00,000 it hoped to sell this year. Of late, the company has also grappled with employee departures and changed a return policy to address cancelled orders. Recently, it asked customers to stop using the Ai Pin charging case because of a fire risk associated with its battery.

Over the past two years, Google has introduced and pared back AI search abilities that recommended people eat rocks, Microsoft has trumpeted a Bing chatbot that hallucinated and Samsung has added AI features to a smartphone that were called “excellent at times and baffling at others”.

Bongiorno and Chaudhri, who are married, declined to comment on a possible sale or fundraising for Humane. They said their ambitions for the Ai Pin had not changed, but they acknowledged there was a difference between testing a device and actually using it.

“You don’t know every-
thing before you launch,” Bongiorno said. Given the product reviews, Chaudhri said, they “definitely wish that we were able to resolve some of those things a little bit differently”.

This account of Humane is based on interviews with 23 current and former employees, advisers and investors, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the matter or feared retaliation.

Many current and former employees said Chaudhri and Bongiorno preferred positivity over criticism. A senior software engineer was dismissed after raising questions about the product, they said, while others left out of frustration.

Chaudhri and Bongiorno, who both worked at Apple, started Humane in 2019. They set out to create a lapel pin that clips to clothing. The device gives users access to an AI-powered virtual assistant that can send messages, search the web or take photos. It is complemented by a laser that projects text onto the palm of a hand for tasks such as skipping a song while playing music. It also has a camera, a speaker and cellular service. From the beginning, employees said, the Ai Pin had issues, which reviewers later picked apart.

One was the device’s laser display, which consumed tremendous power and would cause the pin to overheat. Before showing the gadget to prospective partners and investors, Humane executives often chilled it on ice packs so it would last longer, three people familiar with the demonstrations said. Such measures could be common early in a product development cycle, they added.

Reviews in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Verge blasted the Ai Pin’s shortcomings. Marques Brownlee, a tech reviewer on YouTube with 19 million subscribers, headlined his review “The Worst Product I’ve Ever Reviewed … for Now.”

After this, Bongiorno said, “We pulled the team together, and we said, ‘OK, look, this is going to be painful. We’re going to have to lean into painful feedback.’”

Bongiorno and Chaudhri said Humane had since worked on the issues. The startup has added more voice navigation options and sound effects to make it easier to use. The updates include integrating OpenAI’s newest chatbot, GPT-4o, and one that is set to improve battery life by 25 per cent and cut the device’s response time to two seconds.

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