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AI – the beginning of the end of the cellphone?

AI – the beginning of the end of the cellphone?
Humane’s Imran Chaudhri demonstrating the AI Pin. (Photo: Supplied)

The biggest piece of tech news in decades leaked a few days ago. Only it was just a teaser. It said, basically, the biggest tech news in decades was going to be announced soon. Why? Because Jony Ive is building something with OpenAI’s Sam Altman. Who? Jony Ive. Actually, that’s Sir Jonathan Ive to you.

Ok, that first paragraph was also a teaser, so I owe you an explanation. 

If you look back over the past 50 years of consumer tech innovation and ask yourself who are the one-of-a-kind tech heroes who have changed the world, you will most likely say Jobs at Apple, Gates at Microsoft, Page/Brin at Google, Zuckerberg at Meta. Maybe even Bezos at Amazon or Andy Grove at Intel.

And then there’s Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer for nearly three decades. Few would put him on that list, but you should.

Apple has always stood head and shoulders above the rest of the consumer tech herd because of the design of its products – the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook, the Apple Watch. Not just the colour schemes and materials and housing and form factor and buttons, but the entire elusive magic of the hardware-software-UI-human ecosystem. 

No one else came close to Apple, and all other devices were basically copies. Some might say it was simply great industrial design, but it was much more than that – it was an uncommon understanding of man and machine that made Apple special. Jobs and Ive were close friends and inventors, bound at the hip. Apple would have been nothing without Jobs and it could be argued that Jobs would have been nothing without Ive. 

OK, hagiography over. Teasing over. So, what was the big news? 

It was first reported in The Conversation and The Information, and then the The New York Times and The Financial Times (and then everyone else) that Jony Ive (who recently parted amicably from Apple after his long stellar career) has been in talks with AI topdog Sam Altman and uberbillionaire investor Masayoshi Son, CEO of VC giant Softbank, to start a company with $1-billion or more in funding to build an “AI device”. 

Huh? An “AI device”? Whassat?

The great democratisation of the computer started with PCs. With big screens to see stuff and the mouse and keyboard to interact with the machine. Laptops and touchpads followed. They were a small improvement, not a revolutionary jump. And then the mobile revolution shrank screens, and touchscreens became our preferred tether to the digital world. Everything that we do on laptops and cellphones is through screens and haptics (the fancy tech word for touch), sometimes with a soupçon of voice recognition via Siri and its siblings. 

These same devices are also our connection to the nascent and burgeoning world of artificial intelligence. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are accessing what is arguably the most revolutionary software paradigm shift in history, using devices that have not really changed that much in decades. 

Altman and Ive, backed by Softbank, have decided that the devices we currently use are no longer fit for purpose in this brave new world in which we will all soon be interacting with digital intelligence rather than digital information. They want nothing less than to consign the cellphone and laptop to the mists of history. 

So, what is this device? What does it look like? How does it work? Well, we don’t know yet, because they haven’t told us. But this is Altman and Ive, and so everyone is paying attention. 

And there are hints.

Sam Altman was an early investor in a company called Humane, led by Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, both ex-Apple employees who worked for Ive during his time there. What does Humane do? It has built a device that has no screen and fits in a top pocket. You simply talk to it and it talks back and, if you need to see something, it has a tiny projector that will project on to your hand, a book, a piece of paper (see photo), a wall. And then you just use finger gestures if need be. Or, again, just talk to it. 

There is a TED talk by Humane’s Chaudri with a live demo which is, well, a sensational tease of what may be coming. You can watch it here.

Will this “AI device” replace the cellphone one day? I don’t know. But Ive has expressed moral regret about his part in the iPhone’s rise to uniquity and its runaway addictive qualities, especially for kids (he has two children and he is appalled by the iPhone’s inescapable manacles around their attention). Perhaps this is his way of inventing a solution to a problem to which he significantly contributed. 

In any event, we have the world’s most famous AI innovator – Sam Altman, the world’s greatest industrial designer – Jony Ive, an endless source of cash – Masayoshi Son and, finally, Humane – the leader in intuitive screenless digital interface device design. This is the A-team and something big is certainly coming soon. 

And that’s not a tease. DM

Steven Boykey Sidley is a professor of practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. His new book It’s Mine: How the Crypto Industry is Redefining Ownership is published by Maverick451. It can be ordered directly from the DM store here or on Kindle. It’s also available at bookstores.

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