The New York Times: ‘How the Humane AI Pin Flopped’

Tripp Mickle and Erin Griffith, with a “not what Humane needed the day after announcing their charging case is a potential fire hazard” report for The New York Times:

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 and encouraged them to brace themselves. The reviews might be disappointing, they warned.

I realize this is only a passing summary of the meeting, but I would hope that everyone at the company was aware of the AI Pin’s shortcomings. They’re the ones who were most familiar with it! However much trouble Humane is in, they were comically doomed if their own employees needed to be told the AI Pin was not a good product just days before reviews dropped. One would think the real topic of this all-hands was to explain why they shipped what they shipped and what the plan was to make it good.

About a week after the reviews came out, Humane started talking to HP, the computer and printer company, about selling itself for more than $1 billion, three people with knowledge of the conversations said. Other potential buyers have emerged, though talks have been casual and no formal sales process has begun.

I’m going to be insufferable if they sell to HP.

Its setbacks are part of a pattern of stumbles across the world of generative A.I., as companies release unpolished products. Over the past two years, Google has introduced and pared back A.I. search abilities that recommended people eat rocks, Microsoft has trumpeted a Bing chatbot that hallucinated and Samsung has added A.I. features to a smartphone that were called “excellent at times and baffling at others.”

The above paragraph exemplifies the sort of catch-22 corner the media is trying to portray Apple as having been painted into regarding AI. It’s just stated as fact that Apple “has fallen behind in the AI arms race” (that’s from yesterday in the WSJ) but the AI features from the companies Apple has supposedly fallen behind are, on their own, described with words like unpolished, embarrassing, hallucinating, untrustworthy, and even baffling. Like I wrote two weeks ago, isn’t “behind” where you want to be when those who are ahead are publishing nonsense? What is Apple behind on, embarrassing itself and confusing its users?

Many current and former employees said Mr. Chaudhri and Ms. Bongiorno preferred positivity over criticism, leading them to disregard warnings about the Ai Pin’s poor battery life and power consumption. A senior software engineer was dismissed after raising questions about the product, they said, while others left out of frustration.

Mr. Chaudhri said his company, which had 250 employees at its peak, encouraged workers to offer feedback. The departures were a natural consequence of transitioning from creating a new device to sustaining it after its release, which he said appealed to “a different type of person.” [...]

In January, Humane laid off about 10 employees. A month later, a senior software engineer was let go after she questioned whether the Ai Pin would be ready by April. In a company meeting after the dismissal, Mr. Chaudhri and Ms. Bongiorno said the employee had violated policy by talking negatively about Humane, two attendees said.

It is the kiss of death for any endeavor, creative or technical, to have a culture where brutally honest internal criticism is not welcome, especially when it goes up the chain. In fact it needs to be the expectation, if you’re pursuing excellence. This is probably one of the reasons why Chaudhri, in particular, is not remembered fondly in Cupertino. The key is to always remember to critique the work, not the person. It’s never personal; it’s always about the work.

From the beginning, current and former 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. Those employees said such measures could be common early in a product development cycle.

I’ll bet “Ice Ice Baby” is within Humane’s budget to license, even pre-acquisition.

Thursday, 6 June 2024