The first wave of AI-powered consumer hardware is hitting the market, but can these devices challenge the smartphone’s supremacy?

The smartphone, like the gun or high speed rail, is approaching being a “solved technology.” Each year’s crop of flagship devices might run a little faster, bristle with even more powerful optics, and even fold in half like the world’s most expensive piece of origami. At the core of it, however, smartphones have been doing the things that are actually central to their design for over five years at this point. 

Smartphones are ubiquitous, connected, and affordable. Their form factor has defined the past decade. The question, however, is will it define the next decade? What about the next century? Or, as some suggest, is the age of the smartphone already drawing to a close? 

A post-smartphone world

Ever since the smartphone rose to prominence, people have been looking for the technology that will supplant it. From the ill-fated Google Glass to Apple’s new Vision Pro VR headset, the world’s smartest people have invested billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours looking for something better than a rectangle of black glass. 

“In the long run, smartphones are unlikely to be the apotheosis of personal technology,” wrote technology strategist Don Philmlee last year for Reuters. When something does come along that breaks the smartphone’s hold on us, Philmlee expects it to be a “more personal and more intimate technology. Maybe something that folds, is worn, is embedded under our skin, or is ambiently available in our environment.” 

Right now, a new generation of AI-powered gadgets are giving us a glimpse into what that could look like. 

The AI gadget era? 

Tech giants and startups alike are racing to capitalise on the potential of generative AI to power a new wave of devices and gadgets. 

Right now, the first wave of devices, including Humane’s AI Pin, Rabbit’s R1, and Brilliant Labs’ AI-powered smart glasses are among the first wave of these devices to hit the market. 

Most of these devices substitute the traditional smartphone form factor for something smaller and voice controlled. They have a microphone and a camera for inputting commands. The devices then either dispense information via speaker or limited visual displays. Humane’s AI-Pin even contains a projector that can shine text or simple images onto a nearby surface or the user’s hand. 

The specifics differ, but all these gadgets put artificial intelligence at the forefront of the user experience. A series of large language models then pars the queries. The results are generated by image analysers, large language models, and other cutting edge AI. “AI is not an app or a feature; it’s the whole thing,” writes the Verge’s tech editor, David Pierce

However, creating novel hardware is difficult. Creating novel hardware that outperforms the smartphone? Things don’t necessarily look good for the first crop of AI tech. 

A shaky start for the first crop of AI gadgets

Despite Pierce’s bold proclamation that “we’ll look back on April 2024 as the beginning of a new technological era,” even he is forced to admit that, when it comes to Humane’s AI Pin, “After many days of testing, the one and only thing I can truly rely on the AI Pin to do is tell me the time”. 

Other reviewers have been similarly critical of this first generation of AI gadgets. When reviewing the AI Pin, Marques Brownlee wrote, “this thing is bad at almost everything it does, basically all the time.”

However, devices like the Rabbit R1 have shown promise and generated excitement. By combining a Large Language Model with a “Large Action Model”, the device can not only understand requests, but execute on them. For example, in addition to providing suggestions for a healthy dinner, Rabbit can reportedly place an order with a local restaurant, or purchase ingredients for delivery. 

“The Large Action Model works almost similarly to an LLM, but rather than learning from a database of words, it is learning from actions humans can take on websites and apps — such as ordering food, booking an Uber or even super complex processes,” wrote one reviewer. He explains that the Rabbit R1 isn’t trying to replace the smartphone. However, he notes that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a handset substitute. This is a breakthrough product that I never knew I needed until I held one in my hands.” 

  • Data & AI

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