Consumer electronics startup Essential Products is reportedly working on a new device that will use artificial intelligence to mimic users and respond to messages on their behalf. According to a report from Bloomberg, the gadget is the company’s latest focus after its first hardware product, the Essential Phone, failed to take off with consumers last year.
Bloomberg reports that the new device under development is intended to free users from their phones. It would have a small screen and be controlled primarily using voice commands, while a built-in AI agent would mimic the owner, automatically responding to emails and text messages and booking appointments on their behalf.
Essential Products founder and CEO Andy Rubin, who previously created the Android operating system, has rhapsodized about this sort of user experience before. In an interview with Bloomberg last year he outlined his dream of a phone that is “a virtual version of you.” This product, said Rubin, would let someone forget about their day-to-day admin of smartphone use. “You can be off enjoying your life, having that dinner, without touching your phone, and you can trust your phone to do things on your behalf,” said Rubin.
This is a vision familiar to anyone who’s seen Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, and it’s one that many big tech companies are working towards, with Google as a notable frontrunner.
The company’s Duplex software already mimics human voices, and can carry out basic tasks like booking a haircut or a table at a restaurant. And yesterday, during the unveiling of its new Pixel 3 phones, Google also showed off a new feature that will screen users’ calls for them. An AI agent responds to callers and transcribes what they say, giving user the option to pick up their phone or block the number if it’s spam. Other companies are working on similar projects, like chatbots that can book meetings for users at work.
However, despite these projects, conversational AI is still relatively basic. In the case of Duplex, for example, the agent can only handle calls with a narrow focus (that is, if there’s a basic script to follow, like, “What time will you come to the restaurant?”, “How many people are you booking for?”, and so on). And anyone who’s used an AI assistant like Alexa or Siri will be aware of the huge limitations of these programs. So while Rubin’s vision is compelling on paper, the technology is not yet there to support it.
For Essential Products, this reported device could also be its last shot at relevance. The company is well funded, with about $300 million in backing, but its first device was a flop. In May, it was reported that the company was up for sale and that a follow-up phone, the Essential Phone 2, had been cancelled. Rubin also left the firm last November after reports of an “inappropriate” relationship he had at Google. He returned to Essential in December.