Thinking about the emerging landscape of AI hardware products

18.16, Friday 26 Jan 2024

I’ve been looking at the landscape of AI hardware products. Will the future be more like voice assistants that we talk to, or more like… well, something else?

See, there’s been a flurry of AI hardware in consumer product.

Assistants.

Two products aim to be your smartphone replacement:

  • Rabbit r1 (Fast Company) – a bright orange handheld with screen, a rotating camera, a big walkie talkie button, and a lovely fidget device scroll wheel. Rabbit OS interacts with apps on your behalf when you talk to it.
  • Humane AI Pin (The Verge) – a wearable microphone plus world camera worn as a badge. It does whatever you ask re: what you’re looking at, and output results with a super futuristic green laser projector (that somehow also looks retro).

If iPad was dismissed as a “consumption device” versus general purpose computing devices, these are both “service devices”. They’re made for ordering cabs, booking restaurants, and automating sequenceable knowledge work tasks.

(btw I am not super into the Humane AI Pin overall but I do wish my phone had a green laser projector that I could play with. So, so good.)

Two other wearables:

  • Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses (The Verge). This product is primarily for photos and stream, but the new AI features let you ask questions about what you’re seeing: how do I get to X, how many calories in my lunch, where do I buy that bag.
  • Tab AI (Fast Company) is a necklace with a mic that you talk to. A chatbot: What I’m trying to do is create a new relationship in your life; radical transparency without concern of judgment. I think this is a relationship people used to have with God but is lacking in the modern world.

I am into the ambition and experimentation here!

And, no, “AI hardware” is not a product category, in the same way that voice assistants like Amazon Echo aren’t really a category. You don’t buy them to be a voice assistant, you buy them to be a kitchen timer or to play music or whatever. A “smart speaker” is a speaker.

Yet these are all assistants in one way or another. Playing with the form factor or the way it fits into your life.

So that’s potentially one end of the AI hardware spectrum.


Non-assistants.

Then there is AI hardware without any kind of assistant.

Where the AI enables some other feature. The AI isn’t on the surface as the user interface, it’s deep inside, embedded.

Ok, back to 2018:

  • Google Clips smart camera. Not point-and-click (that was a camera category once upon a time) but always-on. You stand this small square camera on a shelf at a party and it takes 15 photos per second… selecting and retaining only the good ones, thanks to its on-device real-time AI. Like a domesticated GoPro plus a robot photo editor, all in one.

Clips didn’t do so well – it’s almost impossible to invent new categories.

But I’m using it to illustrate this embedded AI end of the spectrum. (And the fact that Google did it on-device 6 years ago shows how long they’ve been ahead with AI, even if that’s not quite so apparent today.)


A typology of AI hardware features.

To tease this space out a little further, assistants bundle together two separate AI-enabled features: new user interfaces, and new agentive (tool using) abilities.

So I think we have a triangle (ternary diagrams have been on my mind).

  • AI-enabled user interfaces, like voice or computer vision
  • Behind-the-scenes agentive AI, like figuring out sequencing from your instructions, or using apps as tools
  • Embedded AI to enable a feature, like “interesting scene” detection in a camera

You could draw a triangular landscape between these extremes. All the products I’ve mentioned could be plotted somewhere inside.

Exercise for the reader: find the gaps and invent new products like planting flowers…


Embedded AI.

Me, I’m most interested when AI isn’t an assistant.

The argument goes like this…

Moore’s Law cuts both ways:

If computers get 100 times more powerful over a decade, we can EQUIVALENTLY say that computers get: 100 times smaller; or 100 times cheaper; or 100 times more abundant.

This is what I’ve previously called intelligence too cheap to meter – and what does it mean to have GPT-4-level intelligence in any light switch, or behind every menu command in your notes app, or your cat’s collar, or in your shoes, or quietly doing its job as a software universal coupling or whatever?

Ubiquitous, embedded AI.

I called it fractional artificial intelligence back in 2012:

We can be frivolous with mathematics, throw it around like confetti.

So I didn’t mean “fractional” as in dumb; only dumb compared to the giant planet brains owned by Big AI. I meant… small and everywhere.

I had no idea in 2012 what the implications of intelligence too cheap to meter would be, and I have no idea now.

But I’m interested!


Back to the poetry clock, of course.

“Embedded AI” is the territory that I’m playing in with my rhyming clock.

Obligatory plug: the Kickstarter pre-launch page has just opened! Go register your interest in Poem/1! Telling the time with a new poem every minute, composed by ChatGPT, and a gorgeous e-paper screen! You’ll get a notification as soon as the campaign opens next week.

The AI clock isn’t an assistant; it doesn’t have agentive capabilities to use tools and do general purpose problem solving. It doesn’t respond to your presence or requests or really any context at all except the time.

It’s an appliance.

An AI-ppliance. (Sorry.)

For all of it being “simply an appliance,” it’s weird to be in the same room and hang out, let me tell you.

We are not accustomed to things like rhyming couplets emerging from a machine poet. Poems are not used decoratively, except made in cross-stitch and hung on the wall. And yet! Here we are!

I think, with the poetry clock, it’s ambiguous whether there’s AI involved at all. A human could quite possibly write a whole day of poems, one for every minute, and then display them on a loop. It’s only the sheer infinity of it that gives it away, and you only really appreciate that, deep down, after living with it.

It’s sort of human (but the words aren’t as good as a human poet would write), sort of alien (it has inhuman endurance).

I think there will be a lot of this.

Insane AI, planetary compute, used for really, really mundane things.


Sharing our planet with machine entities.

There’s a great interview with Stanley Kubrick about the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (previous discussed in 2014).

One of the things we were trying to convey in this part of the film is the reality of a world populated - as ours soon will be - by machine entities who have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings, and who have the same emotional potentialities in their personalities as human beings.

And:

We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.

YES!

BUT!

I wonder whether the reality of a world populated with AI is not so much about listening, watching, speaking, laser-projecting entities, assistants in our pockets and hanging on necklaces and our every word - not JARVIS or HAL 9000 or Samantha or Joshua - but instead a trillion extremely mundane, genius-level, nameless embedded intelligences, squirrelling away, hidden inside everything?

And how will that work, practically? How will that technology be developed, managed, maintained, secured, networked, owned, shared and made equitable?

And how will it feel to live there?

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