Why Humane's screenless AI gadget will not replace iPhone | Cult of Mac

Why Humane’s screenless AI gadget will not replace your iPhone


Imran Chaudhri standing on stage at a TED Talk with the phrase “Screenless Seamless Sensing” written on a slide behind him
People want seamless. They might want sensing. But they absolutely do not want screenless.
Photo: Humane/TED Talks

Humane, the hot Silicon Valley startup that’s been drumming up interest in its secretive product recently, finally showed the world what its A-list talent has been working on. In a TED talk released on Tuesday, Humane co-founder Imran Chaudhri unveiled a small, screenless, badge-like device that the company hopes will replace the smartphone.

Humane is  a buzzy startup that’s raised more than $230 million from investors and has hired a lot of ex-Apple talent. It’s estimated 50% of the company’s 200 employees are from Apple. Chaudhri was one of the lead designers of the original iPhone, and contributed to dozens of Apple’s biggest products (the Mac, iPod, Apple TV, Apple Watch, AirPods and HomePod). His name is on thousands of patents. He met his wife, Humane co-founder Bethany Bongiorno, at Apple. And they hired Ken Kocienda, who literally wrote the book on Apple’s creative process.

I’m laying out their credentials here at the top because it is remarkable to me how such a team could miss the mark by such an incredible margin. Humane’s badge thing cannot and will not replace your iPhone, no matter how hard Chaudhri wishes that to be the case.

Humane’s screenless device is no ‘iPhone killer’

It did not take long after the original iPhone launch in 2007 for smartphones to become ubiquitous. More than 1 billion people use the iPhone for everyday tasks like texting, navigating, playing music and videos, taking pictures and, yes, making the occasional phone call. Still, even Apple itself is looking for the next big thing that will replace the iPhone.

Humane’s device is not that thing.

People like smartphones because they have screens they can use to look at things. The primary display on Humane’s device appears to be a laser projected on your hand that can show a couple lines of text and two buttons.

A projector doesn’t cut it

You call that an iPhone killer? See Humane’s first public demo.
It looks great if you only need three words, two buttons and you’re standing in a dark room.
Screenshot: Humane/TED Talks

You can’t scroll through TikTok, Mastodon, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, RSS — whatever happens to be your social media platform of choice — projected onto your hand. You can’t watch YouTube. You can’t browse the web or read your email or look something up or show a friend a picture.

If it were true that people felt imprisoned by their addiction to their smartphones, the last five startups trying to do exactly the same thing (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) already would have succeeded. All of these are missing the point.

People do everything on their phones because (a) they like to do them and (b) their phones are good at doing things. Humane is trying to replace your phone with one that can’t do anything with the most tedious user interface imaginable.

All that is if we ignore that the iPhone isn’t just a pocket computer, it’s a camera. For millions of people, it’s their only camera. It takes all their pictures, and it’s the only screen they ever see those pictures on.

If you want to convince people to sell their iPhone for a badge you wear on your shirt, you also need to sell them on buying a camera and make sure they have a computer to sync it to. After all that, you’ve traded one device for three and I’m not sure what problem is being solved.

‘Is this a product or is this a feature?’

Imran Chaudhri pointing to the Humane badge device pinned to his shirt.
I’ve always wanted to wear Siri on my shirt.
Photo: Humane/TED Talks

In the demo, we see Chaudhri take a phone call. He also asks Humane’s AI assistant a few questions that, to Chaudhri’s point, Siri can’t handle.

That leads me to the question designers of all disciplines must ask themselves. “Does this thing deserve to be its own product, or is it just a feature that can be added to an existing product?” Hopefully, this matter is settled early in the process, not after you’ve poached a team of top Silicon Valley engineers and raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors.

From what we’ve been shown, Humane’s device is a phone with a smart voice assistant. If Apple were to add such AI-powered features to Siri, your iPhone could do everything the Humane badge thing could do — and get this, it also has a screen.

Apple already makes such a device

Plus, Apple already makes a wearable that can do many of the things that Humane’s can. It can make phone calls, it can send texts, and it has a voice assistant. It’s called the Apple Watch.

And, in fact, it’s not just a subset of the iPhone. The Apple Watch extends the phone’s capabilities by adding health- and fitness-tracking features. It can capture your heart rate, activity, blood oxygen and body temperature. It can even take an ECG and measure your running posture. If you know a lot of people with an Apple Watch, you know that the device’s growing array of sensors is its real killer feature.

These are capabilities that a badge pinned to the outside of your shirt would have an awfully hard time doing, though I do concede that the Apple Watch won’t tell me not to eat a bar of chocolate, as Humane’s device does in the TED video.

But get this, like the iPhone, the Apple Watch also has a screen. An OLED display on an inky black piece of glass is always going to outperform a laser projected onto your hand. It’s always going to have better contrast; it’s always going to be sharper and easier to read.

How about accessibility? Or privacy? Or the fact that humans are different?

Accessibility webpage
A landing page on Apple’s website emphasizes accessibility.
Photo: Apple

As former Apple employees, you would think Humane’s leaders would have a clear message — or at least some kind of passing acknowledgment — about accessibility and privacy, two core philosophies that guide many of Cupertino’s decision-making processes.

But from what we’ve seen, they don’t.

How do you interact with the badge thing if you’re mute? How well does it understand you if you have a speech impediment, a lisp or a strong accent? And how do you hear its answers if you’re hard of hearing? How the hell do you pair Bluetooth headphones or hearing aids to something without a screen? How do you see the laser projection if you have pale skin and you’re standing outside or in a bright room?

How do you stop the AI from scanning everything in your surroundings if you work in a sensitive environment? How can you trust someone wearing a Humane device?

Do they seriously expect everyone to talk to this thing out loud when the dictionary definition of someone making a phone call on speaker in public just says “see also: asshole”?

Case in (one more) point: the HomePod

HomePod mini
The HomePod doesn’t have a screen; it has three glowy capacitive buttons.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

I really can’t get over how skeptical I am about a laser projector instead of a screen, so I have to bring up one more example.

The HomePod is a smart speaker without a screen. People use the HomePod to listen to music, play podcasts and ask Siri questions. Apple can barely get away with it as is — one of the chief complaints about the HomePod is its lack of a screen. People are excited to imagine and look forward to the possibility of a HomePod with a screen.

Now imagine if the HomePod was somehow your smartphone, your only interface with the digital world away from home. People would lose their minds. That’s effectively what Humane is trying to sell us.

There’s still more to see (I presume?)

On one hand, this was only a 13-minute talk, where the product itself somehow wasn’t entirely the central focus. Most of Chaudhri’s presentation focused on laying out the philosophy driving the company, which is to make computers disappear.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making that kind of statement. On the other hand, you’d think former Apple employees (of all people) would understand the importance of making the best, most complete first impression.

If you haven’t watched Chaudhri’s TED talk, I strongly encourage you to do so. Just when you think it can’t possibly get any more Silicon Valley, Chaudhri says, “This is not a deepfake. In fact, it’s deeply profound.”

In some ways, Humane’s heart is in the right place. A personalized AI smart assistant that’s trained on the details of your own life could be incredibly powerful. But it would be better served by the smartphones, smartwatches, tablets and computers we already use — it doesn’t need a bespoke hardware product.


Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.