Why Humane’s Ai Pin Is Not a Smartphone Replacement
Humane’s Ai Pin is an exciting stab at a different kind of mobile computer, but it really doesn’t seem like it’ll replace the one in your pocket already.
Weeks after its launch, we’re still learning new things about Humane’s first consumer product, the Ai Pin.
Despite high-profile hands-ons in the The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the company’s official explanations of its wearable in its launch video and website have been decidedly vague. It wasn't until recently, when the device actually went on sale and the company’s founders started posting videos of them actually using the device and answering questions that some of the more concrete details began to be filled in.
The Ai Pin might be designed to be worn on your clothes, but it isn’t water resistant. And while my hands-off demo of the device was primarily focused on voice controls, you can use most of the most important features just by navigating the Ai Pin’s “Laser Ink Display” on your hand. These details are great to know, but they haven’t settled the confusion around whether a device with cellular antennas, a phone number, and a network backed by T-Mobile is actually meant to replace smartphones. While the device hasn’t launched yet, I think based on what Humane has shared we can definitively say it won’t replace your phone, though that doesn’t mean it couldn’t fit somewhere else.
It doesn’t run apps
The glaring omission of the Ai Pin and one of the first things anyone asks about when I’ve mentioned the device is apps. The Ai Pin doesn’t run apps, instead its Cosmos operating system (based on Android) is home to a variety of “AI experiences,” that allow you to do different things with the device. These are specially trained models and chatbots built to handle specific tasks or enable certain kinds of functionality. Maybe they connect to some other platform (Humane has listed Tidal and Slack as partners) or access specific parts of the Ai Pin’s hardware, but the idea is you never have to worry about updating them and Humane will add more and more experiences over time so your Ai Pin can only get more useful.
While I think it's not too difficult to wrap your head around the communication part of the Ai Pin, messages, phone calls, and emails aren’t the only things we do on our phones. A majority of people’s time is spent in apps, particularly apps that are highly dependent on the screen. Think of the number of social media apps you use that are driven by photos and videos or games that require physical inputs. None of that would be possible on the Pin, at least not in the way you’re used to.
Of course, that limitation is by design on some level. The fiddliness of apps, even as easy as the Apple App Store or Google Play Store make them to find and download, is one of the many things that keep us glued to our screens. Humane’s Ai Pin suggests maybe we should all be spending less time thinking about the peculiarities of software and more time getting whatever brief benefit we get from them.
It doesn’t support mobile payments
The Ai Pin, at least as far as Humane has shared, doesn’t include any kind of way to make in-person purchases. While the company’s initial demo showed a way to use the Ai Pin’s camera to make purchases online there was no mention of any kind of tap-to-pay functionality. If you’re used to paying with Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay, it seems like you won’t have the option.
It’s not clear if the Ai Pin could enable mobile payments later even if Humane wanted to. Looking through the technical details on Humane’s site, there’s no mention of NFC chips anywhere in the Ai Pin’s internal components, the key feature you’d need to enable payments in the first place. A lack of mobile payments isn’t the end of the world — we all have debit and credit cards — but it is one of the things that would make the Ai Pin as standalone as a smartphone.
It doesn’t have a screen
Then there’s the biggest difference, and the one that Humane had to do some clever engineering to work around — the lack of a screen. The Ai Pin displays visual information through its Laser Ink Display, a laser projector with 720p resolution designed to detect your hand and project the Ai Pin’s stripped-down interface on it, but otherwise features no traditional display. The missing screen is justified for a variety of reasons: it’s distracting. AI is competent to look up information for you without requiring physical inputs and removing a screen keeps your head pointed at the people and world around you — but there’s no denying it’s a big change.
What’s seemed the most damning for Humane’s overall pitch is that co-founders Bethany Bongiorno and Imran Chaudhri have readily admitted they still use their smartphones alongside the Ai Pin. “Are we using our smartphones less?” Chaudhri told NYT. “We’re using them differently.” On one hand, this candidness is kind of refreshing, Humane’s founders are being honest about how the Ai Pin is currently fitting into their lives, but on the other, for a device that in many ways seems designed to replace smartphones (the whole separate phone number implies so), it weakens what could be a core appeal.
In a recent Q&A streamed live on Instagram and later uploaded to Humane’s Discord (where I watched it), Chaudhri suggested that the main way he was still using his smartphone was as a media consumption device, a sort of expensive iPod touch. That’s not surprising, given the vibrant screens and media apps of modern smartphones, but how do we square that with what the Ai Pin does?
The third device problem
The average person gets by with one to three computing devices in their life. There’s a smartphone that goes with them everywhere, a traditional computer that stays at home, in a bag, or in a public place like a library or internet cafe, and maybe, a third device that they wear or carry around, like a smartwatch or tablet. That third device is tricky. Unlike smartphones, it's far from set in stone or essential in modern society, but it is stabilizing around a few use cases like fitness, media consumption, and content creation.
What’s confusing about the Ai Pin is that it most readily feels like it fits in that third device slot, as “the slightly more compact and mobile computer with a twist,” but it primarily seems designed to do the job of the computer that’s hardest to give up — the smartphone. I’ve seen plenty of people wonder why the Ai Pin isn't an accessory to a smartphone, like the Apple Watch. Something that offers another way into information a smartphone can access, but also has its own functionality. There’s a world where an Ai Pin that works like an Apple Watch with GPS and cellular, relying on a smartphone’s connectivity but able to be used on its own, makes more sense and is an easier sell.
“... the Ai Pin doesn’t eliminate the need for screens, it instead demotes them.”
But Humane wants to make something standalone, an entirely new paradigm for computing. Not a replacement for the devices we already own, but rather something else entirely. In that way, the Ai Pin doesn’t eliminate the need for screens, it instead demotes them. It lets them be used for what they’re good at, like watching or playing content, and leaves other jobs, like accessing information, to something else. Viewed through that lens, and ignoring the huge behavioral and social shifts required, the Ai Pin makes more sense. It’s not a smartphone replacement (though it could be one occasionally); it’s just a different kind of mobile computer. Maybe a better one, depending on how you feel about your screen time, but it seems like a hard switch to make.
This article was originally published on