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First there were AI chatbots. Now AI assistants can order Ubers and book vacations

The AI-powered Rabbit R1 device is seen at Rabbit Inc.'s headquarters in Santa Monica, California. The gadget is meant to serve as a personal assistant fulfilling tasks such as ordering food on DoorDash for you, calling an Uber or booking your family's vacation.
Stella Kalinina for NPR
The AI-powered Rabbit R1 device is seen at Rabbit Inc.'s headquarters in Santa Monica, California. The gadget is meant to serve as a personal assistant fulfilling tasks such as ordering food on DoorDash for you, calling an Uber or booking your family's vacation.

ChatGPT can give you travel ideas, but it won't book your flight to Cancún.

Now, artificial intelligence is here to help us scratch items off our to-do lists.

A slate of tech startups are developing products that use AI to complete real-world tasks.

Silicon Valley watchers see this new crop of "AI agents" as being the next phase of the generative AI craze that took hold with the launch of chatbots and image generators.

Last year, Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, nodded to the future of AI errand-helpers at the company's developer conference.

"Eventually, you'll just ask a computer for what you need, and it'll do all of these tasks for you," Altman said.

Like a walkie-talkie, but with an animated rabbit head

One of the most hyped companies doing this is called Rabbit. It has developed a device called the Rabbit R1. Chinese entrepreneur Jesse Lyu launched it at this year's CES, the annual tech trade show, in Las Vegas.

It's a bright orange gadget about half the size of an iPhone. It has a button on the side that you push and talk into like a walkie-talkie. In response to a request, an AI-powered rabbit head pops up and tries to fulfill whatever task you ask.

Chatbots like ChatGPT rely on technology known as a large language model, and Rabbit says it uses both that system and a new type of AI it calls a "large action model." In basic terms, it learns how people use websites and apps and mimics these actions after a voice prompt.

It won't just play a song on Spotify, or start streaming a video on YouTube, which Siri and other voice assistants can already do, but Rabbit will order DoorDash for you, call an Uber, book your family's vacation. And it makes suggestions after learning a user's tastes and preferences.

Storing potentially dozens or hundreds of a person's passwords raises instant questions about privacy. But Rabbit claims it saves user credentials in a way that makes it impossible for the company, or anyone else, to access someone's personal information. The company says it will not sell or share user data with third parties "without your formal, explicit permission."

A Rabbit employee demonstrates the company's Rabbit R1 device. The company says more than 80,000 people have preordered the device for $199.
/ Stella Kalinina for NPR
/
Stella Kalinina for NPR
A Rabbit employee demonstrates the company's Rabbit R1 device. The company says more than 80,000 people have preordered the device for $199.

The company, which says more than 80,000 people have preordered the Rabbit R1, will start shipping the devices in the coming months.

"This is the first time that AI exists in a hardware format," said Ashley Bao, a spokeswoman for Rabbit at the company's Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters. "I think we've all been waiting for this moment. We've had our Alexa. We've had our smart speakers. But like none of them [can] perform tasks from end to end and bring words to action for you."

Getting stuff done with less time on the phone?

Excitement in Silicon Valley over AI agents is fueling an increasingly crowded field of gizmos and services. Google and Microsoft are racing to develop products that harness AI to automate busywork. The web browser Arc is building a tool that uses an AI agent to surf the web for you. Another startup, called Humane, has developed a wearable AI pin that projects a display image on a user's palm. It's supposed to assist with daily tasks and also make people pick up their phones less frequently.

Similarly, Rabbit claims its device will allow people to get things done without opening apps (you log in to all your various apps on a Rabbit web portal, so it uses your credentials to do things on your behalf).

To work, the Rabbit R1 has to be connected to Wi-Fi, but there is also a SIM card slot, in case people want to buy a separate data plan just for the gadget.

When asked why anyone would want to carry around a separate device just to do something your smartphone could do in 30 seconds, Rabbit CEO Lyu argued that using apps to place orders and make requests all day takes longer than we might imagine.

"We are looking at the entire process, end to end, to automate as much as possible and make these complex actions much quicker and much more intuitive than what's currently possible with multiple apps on a smartphone," Lyu said.

Is this device necessary?

ChatGPT's introduction in late 2022 set off a frenzy at companies in many industries trying to ride the latest tech industry wave. That chatbot exuberance is about to be transferred to the world of gadgets, said Duane Forrester, an analyst at the firm Yext.

Google and Microsoft are racing to develop products that harness AI to automate busywork, which might make other AI-powered assistants obsolete.
/ Stella Kalinina for NPR
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Stella Kalinina for NPR
Google and Microsoft are racing to develop products that harness AI to automate busywork, which might make other AI-powered assistants obsolete.

"Early on, with the unleashing of AI, every single product or service attached the letters "A" and "I" to whatever their product or service was," Forrester said. "I think we're going to end up seeing a version of that with hardware as well."

Forrester said an AI walkie-talkie might quickly become obsolete when companies like Apple and Google make their voice assistants smarter with the latest AI innovations.

"You don't need a different piece of hardware to accomplish this," he said.
"What you need is this level of intelligence and utility in our current smartphones, and we'll get there eventually."

AI agents stir concerns about AI going rogue

Researchers are worried that AI-powered personal assistant technology could eventually go wrong.
/ Stella Kalinina for NPR
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Stella Kalinina for NPR
Researchers are worried that AI-powered personal assistant technology could eventually go wrong.

Researchers are worried about where such technology could eventually go awry.

The AI assistant purchasing the wrong nonrefundable flight, for instance, or sending a food order to someone else's house are among potential snafus that analysts have mentioned.

A 2023 paper by the Center for AI Safety warned against AI agents going rogue. It said if an AI agent is given an "open-ended goal" — say, maximize a person's stock market profits — without being told how to achieve that goal, it could go very wrong.

"We risk losing control over AIs as they become more capable. AIs could optimize flawed objectives, drift from their original goals, become power-seeking, resist shutdown, and engage in deception. We suggest that AIs should not be deployed in high-risk settings, such as by autonomously pursuing open-ended goals or overseeing critical infrastructure, unless proven safe," according to a summary of the paper.

At Rabbit's Santa Monica office, Rabbit R1 Creative Director Anthony Gargasz pitches the device as a social media reprieve. Use it to make a doctor's appointment or book a hotel without being sucked into an app's feed for hours.

"Absolutely no doomscrolling on the Rabbit R1," said Gargasz. "The scroll wheel is for intentional interaction."

His colleague Ashley Bao added that the whole point of the gadget is to "get things done efficiently." But she acknowledged there's a cutesy factor too, comparing it to the keychain-size electronic pets that were popular in the 1990s.

"It's like a Tamagotchi but with AI," she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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