Every year, in early January, tens of thousands of tech aficionados descend on Las Vegas for the Customer Electronic Show (CES). It’s an event best known for capturing the tech world’s current zeitgeist; 2023 was heavy on EVs and sustainability, while 2022 revolved around improved hardware and gaming setups. Unsurprisingly, CES 2024 was all about AI. AI for headsets, AI for babies, AI for pets… this year had it all.
Obviously, the press unofficially crowns winners and losers at the end of the event. There is a variety of opinions on the losers (Google seems to be getting a lot of votes), but the winner is indisputable; it’s the Rabbit R1.
In short, R1 is a compact, AI-powered handheld device designed to streamline daily tasks. You talk into it like you would a walkie-talkie (by pressing a side button), and get the Artificial Intelligence to autonomously execute tasks historically done through apps. This includes, as per the demo, planning itineraries, ordering food, or booking a taxi. Speak, then validate with a click, without browsing / tinkering. The device is equipped with a 360° camera that allows it to “see” and better answer questions regarding the physical world. Finally a piece of software accessible via a PC allows its users to “teach” it repeatable tricks to save even more time.
Sadly, this (very) cute piece of tech is severely over-hyped and doomed to fail.
The Rabbit R1: the Most Over-Hyped Project in the Tech World Right Now
In his keynote, Rabbit’s founder contends that Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana may understand us, but are unable to complete actions. They’re just a way to use Google verbally. Hardly assistants. He portrays the Rabbit R1 as an AI companion able to do much more, from planning a complex holiday in a few sentence to accessing your favorite artists’ concert dates. And that’s a great idea!
But it’s just one idea. One idea that could easily and entirely fit inside a single app created by a larger player.
Rabbit may be the first out the gate (and props to them for that), but every single device maker has had the same plan for the past 18 months. Even I’ve had this idea a year ago. Microsoft recently announced it is adding a new key to PC keyboards for the first time since 1994, specifically for its Copilot AI assistant. Raycast, meanwhile, has been a Mac staple for a while now, and is also accessible at a click of a button.
The only reason we don’t have more examples yet is because natively integrating one app in a vast universe of products and services takes time. This is however where the value will come from: a flywheel effect wherein an actor like Apple, being already connected to all your apps (and location) via iPhone and iCloud data is able to better assist you by better knowing you.
Having built a whole device for a functionality literally every smartphone is going to introduce and improve on in a few months, Rabbit is essentially just another AI wrapper. The only reason this is a separate device instead of an app is because the company needs to have unfettered access to a camera and microphone without Apple or Google stopping them.
Which brings us to another obvious challenge: most individuals prefer carrying or using a single device, with their phones serving as the ideal choice (when was the last time you bought a flashlight). My iPhone will soon do what the Rabbit does… and already does so much more, today. Should you purchase a Rabbit, it will absolutely stay home when you go out.
Then we get to the R1’s party trick. The device can connect to one’s apps (Spotify, Uber, Doordash…) to take actions on one’s behalf without having to visit said apps (with the user’s permission / login via a PC). This is neat… but what if tech giants like Meta or Google or Apple refuse to play ball and make integrations with the R1’s software more complex? And what if the apps no longer want to be accessed by an AI? This type of device could seriously hurt their ad or pull-through revenues. We’ve already seen lawsuits aimed at OpenAI / ChatGPT; how will this be any different?
Strategically, this is a massive vulnerability. On the other side of the spectrum, not only do large actors like Apple and Microsoft have a breadth of offers to concatenate, they also have the power to negotiate with apps makers to provide their services via AI… and pay them for it.
Which leads us to the device’s economics. The Rabbit R1 is priced at $199, an unusually low one-time (!) price for such a product. Again, good for them, but… the R1 does not use fully local AI, so you’re using their cloud. And running a cloud is expensive (110k$ a day for ChatGPT). It’s so expensive, in fact, that a one-time purchase rather than a subscription model makes little sense, and is unlikely to last. This means the company is likely to look for new growth avenues. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on all the “privacy-first” promises disappearing when they realise data can be sold at a good price.
A local AI would have been a game changer. In the future, every device, such as TVs, cars, phones, and individual applications will come equipped with built-in natural language models. These models will be small, local and limited to their purpose. What we got instead is a Pokedex connected to the Cloud.
Other issues, in bullet-points, because you only have so much time to study bad tech in details
During CES, Google announced it was removing “under-utilized features” from its AI assistant’s “brain”. That obsolete functions include “Checking personal travel itineraries by voice” and “making a reservation”… which were both in the R1 demo! Google has enough data to know what it’s doing: no one is using an AI assistant to do these things.
The hardware looks cool, but is pretty dreadful in terms of wasted space; around 20% of the device is empty / unused.
The keyboard works poorly (allegedly), which is unfortunate : people need text input because they have needs that are detailed and complex, which are not easily expressed or recorded through voice.
AI hallucinations are not addressed. Since this is an AI and nothing else, how does one check the veracity of its statements?
It’s supposedly very fast (though the problem with ChatGPT was never its speed). But in the demo, I wasn’t convinced it was faster than ChatGPT4.
What if you're left-handed?
I could be wrong about the R1. Its first batch sold out on day One and pre-orders are through the roof. It has generated considerable consumer interest. They are the first(ish) on the market with such a gadget, and though they will be trounced by Siri 2.0, the team should be proud.
It definitely seems like the early days of a tech wave. There were all kinds of weird off-the-wall designs and ideas for phones at the beginning of the smartphone wave as companies were exploring to try and find niches and see what was possible. It’s kinda fun and I’m excited to see what other weird things people come up with.
Good luck out there.