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The Dumbest Project happening in the Tech World right now

Over the past year, we have witnessed a seemingly infinite number of AI projects emerge. There is, of course, OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Then its copies: Claude, Anthropic and Google’s Bard. Finally, we have the weird stuff, like Replika and whatever Meta is up to these days. For now, all are digital products, running on “old” laptops and mobile… which is a little boring.

Humanity will only see real innovation when it starts building specialised hardware with the sole purpose of interacting with AIs in the physical world. We have created all-knowing gods, and we must now give them a physical form. We know the end state will be in our image (iRobot, anyone?), but what will come before that? Perhaps Humane’s 700$ “Pin”, about which much has already been written? Meta’s smart glasses? Whatever Johnny Hive and OpenAI are currently working on with their 1B$ of funding? Whatever it is, I know for a fact that it will not look like The Rewind Pendant.

The Rewind Pendant: the Dumbest Project happening in Tech right now

Rewind is a company currently selling software that records everything you see, hear or say on your laptop. In October 2023, its CEO announced they were launching The Pendant, a little necklace with a black cylinder hanging off of it, that has a microphone in it. Its core principle is simple: The Pendant records every conversation you have, transcribes it, encrypts it, and stores it on your phone so you can go back and review every conversation you’ve ever had.

Perfect memory. At your fingertips.

Recorders are not hard to make; that’s why the pendant only costs 60$ to pre-order. What’s new is the AI technology linked to the app, which efficiently stores and searches and resurfaces that data for the user.

As many will have noted, this is literally a low-tech Black Mirror episode. In “The Entire History of You,” “Grains” record everything people see and hear biologically, while “The Pendant” records conversations via a microphone. And while “Grains” allow individuals to replay their memories perfectly, “The Pendant” merely transcribes and stores conversations for later review.

The Rewind Pendant

Let’s cut to the chase. The Pendant is a dystopian nightmare. The ability to record everything everyone says all the time (and, most importantly, easily find it again) raises so many questions about consent, privacy invasion, and the potential misuse of such recordings.

Imagine a scenario where someone wearing The Pendant attends a corporate party. Unbeknownst to the other participants, The Pendant is recording every word said during the event. The next day, the wearer of The Pendant could share with ill-meaning 3rd parties the exact transcribed conversations, including sensitive business strategies, proprietary information, or juicy gossip. The scenario becomes even more alarming if a third party gains unauthorized access to the recordings through hacking or worse: legal requests (Rewind says that they would comply with official subpoenas).

Think about it. A lot of what we say would not look good if it were recorded and somehow leaked into the open. The world of gossiping would essentially disappear. No one would be trusted because everyone would be wearing a wire. Or, as chatGPT would put it, “The Pendant could change the dynamics of trust and communication in relationships, as every conversation can be stored and scrutinized.” The only pleasant outcome in all this is that sauna business meetings would make a huge come-back; the only way to have privacy would be to ensure everyone is naked. I’m sure that’ll be great for equality.

Obviously, The Pendant’s website says “We take a privacy-first approach and offer features for you to ensure no one is recorded without their consent.” But nothing else has been written or said. Without a more elaborate explanation, this statement is worthless. The only way to solve the issue of privacy is to ensure verbal consent is required for recording and linked to a unique voice signature. Some algorithms could potentially do this, but there would be questions. Like, how often and quickly are recordings deleted if no consent is given? Can you give consent later and retrieve the conversation? Where is the voice signature stored? What about deepfakes of people’s voices, which have become scarily accurate? That’s a lot of questions to answer for a small software company.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my baby’s first words to be “I consent to my data being used by an AI startup”.

The Pendant is being marketed as a productivity tool. And one could see its use for reducing emotional labour: having a grocery list said rather than written, bookmarking a particularly important part of a conversation for later review, taking meeting minutes… etc. But I remain skeptical.

A big part of being productive is the thinking that happens after a conversation. In fact, we usually struggle to come up with more than three takeaways after a one-hour meeting. Reviewing an entire conversation instead of having a little notebook with key quotes and thoughts is creating problems and reducing productivity, not the other way around. Trust a professional meeting-minutes-taker, The Pendant is just trying to cash in on people’s anxiety and fear of missing out, but in reality is just a solution looking for a problem.

Finally, I’d add two additional nails on this idea’s coffin:

  • Forgetting is a good thing. In fact, our brains often do us a favour by making past events less painful (when those memories are not altogether erased). Chatbots might take on eternal questions like “What went wrong in my marriage?” and deliver an accurate answer… but would we want this?

  • With people increasingly relying on technology for memory retention, we may potentially undermine natural memory processes and the traditional notion of personal experience.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said it best in a recent interview: “People might feel like it’s empowering to have a record of everything they’ve ever heard, like a super memory or something like that. But it could actually be disempowering and turn against you.

 

The Orb, The Sphere, and now The Pendant. When did we end up in a YA novel?

Tech is all about reducing friction. Spotify, Uber, Netflix… have done that better than most. But there are times in our lives when a little bit of friction is healthy. The act of removing our iPhone from our pockets to record someone, for example, is the greatest privacy protector we ever got.

I believe that in the future, tech should be less about removing friction and more about being present in the world. We should aspire to hardware being as discreet as possible and allowing us to be in the moment.

The Pendant will not do that. And I expect anyone wearing the device will be socially shunned. Good riddance.

Good luck out there.

“The Pendant” will make your life worse if you buy it
 

This article was originally written for wearedevelopers.com, Europe’s developer-focused job platform.

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