The Humanity Of It

The new A.I. Pin from Humane is, according to those who have used one, bad. Even if you accept the premise of wearing a smart speaker and use it to do a bunch of the stuff for which you used to rely on your phone, it is not good at those things — again, according to those who have used one, and I have not. Why is it apparently controversial to say that with intention?

Cherlynn Low, of Engadget, “cannot recommend anyone spend this much money for the one or two things it does adequately”. David Pierce, of the Verge, says it is “so thoroughly unfinished and so totally broken in so many unacceptable ways”. Arun Maini said the “total amount of effort required to perform any given action is just higher with the Pin”. Raymond Wong, of Inverse, wrote the most optimistic review of all those I saw but, after needing a factory reset of his review unit and then a wind gust blowing it off his shirt, it sounds like he is only convinced by the prospect of future versions, not the “textbook […] first-generation product” he is actually using.

It was Marques Brownlee’s blunt review title — “The Worst Product I’ve Ever Reviewed… For Now” — which caught the attention of a moderately popular Twitter user. The review itself was more like Wong’s, seeing some promise in the concept while dismissing this implementation, but the tweet itself courted controversy. Is the role of a reviewer to be kind to businesses even if their products suck, or is it to be honest?

I do not think it makes sense to dwell on an individual tweet. What is more interesting to me is how generous all of the reviewers have been so far, even while reaching such bleak conclusions. Despite having a list of cons including “unreliable”, and “slow”, and Low saying she burned herself “several times” because it was so hot, Engadget still gave it a score of 50 out of 100. The Verge gave it a 4 out of 10, and compared the product’s reception to that of the “dumpster fire” Nexus Q of 2012, which it gave a score of 5 out of 10.

That last review is a relevant historic artifact. The Nexus Q was a $300 audio and video receiver which users would, in theory, connect to a television or a Hi-Fi speaker system. It was controlled through software on an Android phone, and its standout feature was collaborative playlists. But the Verge found it had “connectivity problems” with different phones and different Nexus Q review units, videos looked “noticeably poor”, it was under-featured, and different friends adding music to the playback queue worked badly. Aside from the pretty hardware, there simply was no there there, and it was canned before a wide release.

But that was from Google, an established global corporation. Humane may have plenty of ex-Apple staff and lots of venture capital money, but it is still a new company. I have no problem grading on a reasonable curve. But how in the world is the Humane getting 40% or 50% of a perfect grade when every reviewer seems to think this product is bad and advises people not to buy one?

Even so, all of them seem compelled to give it the kind of tepid score you would expect for something that is flawed, but not a disaster. Some of the problems do not seem to be a direct fault of Humane; they are a consequence of the technological order. But that does not justify spending $700 plus a $24 per month subscription which you will need to keep paying in perpetuity to prevent your A.I. Pin from becoming a fridge magnet.

Maybe this is just a problem with trying to assign numerical scores. I have repeatedly complained about this because I think it gives mixed messages. What people need to know is whether something is worth buying, which consists of two factors: whether it addresses an actual problem, and whether it is effective at solving that problem. It appears the answer to the first is “maybe”, and the answer to the second is “hell no”. It does not matter how nice the hardware may be, or how interesting the laser projecting screen is. It apparently burns you while you barely use it.

In that light, giving this product an even tepid score is misleading. It is not respectful of potential buyers nor of the team which helped make it. It seems there are many smart people at Humane who thought they had a very good idea, and many people were intrigued. If a reviewer’s experience was poor, it is not cruel for them to be honest and say that it is, in a word, bad.