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  • Vishal Narayan

Rabbit R1's success could be early sign of death of app-based interface

With the world still not over the daze of early AI, a tiny hardware device has caught the attention of tech lovers with its smart harnessing of the artificial intelligence in an Alfred-like butlership, deserving truly the term 'personal assistant.' 

Rabbit R1, launched at the latest CES, took the AI world by storm by being sold out within just 24 hours of its release earlier this month.

According to the company's X account, it has so far sold 50,000 R1 in five batches, with 50,000 more R1s slated to hit the market in June-July.

Rabbit R1, a vibrant orange AI walkie-talkie, can answer basic questions and allows users to programme AI "rabbits," which are like small software robots. These rabbits can perform intricate tasks, such as planning vacations, removing watermarks from photos, or even create AI images, on the basis of instructions fed.

Jesse Lyu, the CEO of Rabbit R1, is not new to building cute-looking but robust hardware.

Lyu was the man behind Raven Tech, an AI company, which he successfully sold to the Chinese giant Baidu in 2017.

He later joined forces with the Swedish company Teenage Engineering, to create Raven H—an assistant speaker positioned as an alternative to the Amazon Echo and Google Nest Home.

While people were still fiddling with the cylindrical speakers, Lyu's version of personal assistant was a stacked cube-shaped LCD-mounted hardware, which immediately reminded one of 90s' kitschy gadgets, and also betrayed a slight subversive streak in the young engineer.

His latest invention is his answer to the Alexas and Siris of the world.

Lyu doesn't mean Rabbit to be one of the many in the fast crowding field of AI-enabled hardware. He seems to have a vision to alter the shape of the future by going past the app-based interface that we have come to be addicted to over the past more than decade.   

"Our mission is to create the simplest computer, something so intuitive that you don't need to learn how to use it. The best way to achieve this is to break away from app-based operating system currently used by smartphones," Lyu said earlier this month just before he gave a demonstration of Rabbit R1.


His solution to bypass the whole interface thing is building an AI hardware that can interact with apps just as a human would and perform tasks – something what he termed a large action model.

"A Large Language Model understands what you say, but a Large Action Model gets things done," he said.

According to Lyu, Rabbit is different from other AI-based personal assistants, because it not only understands the need of the user, but also performs such simple tasks for them like book an Uber or of a film show.

With a roving eye for a camera, it can also suggest a dish that can be made from the raw materials shown to it, as Lyu demonstrated in the video.

Rabbit R1 works with AI bots, or what the industry calls them 'agents,' to interact with the app's interface and use them just as a human would.

But why not build an app to begin with instead of going with the risk of competing with a smartphone by building, however pocket-friendly, another piece of hardware?

Lyu's answer, in short, is because he doesn't want to give in to the hegemony of Apple.

"Siri will just do something like this, or even better. But from my perspective, how do I want to build a business?" he said in an interview to Fast Company.

According to Lyu, transforming Rabbit into an app would essentially mean relinquishing intellectual property to Apple, exposing its code.

"You can be very successful on the App Store, but you have that lack of sense of security… Like, what if tomorrow there's a better app? Think of filter apps for Instagram. There's no loyalty whatsoever!" he said.

And while he acknowledged that carrying an additional device around could be seen as undesirable, Lyu believes that's "a problem that you don't need to worry about now."

He insisted Rabbit is not supposed to replace the smartphone, or maybe, not just yet. "It should be exactly not like a phone," he said.

"The fundamental principle is that we’re not trying to replace your phone… It's just a new gadget," he added.

Despite the caveat, there's no denying that while everyone so far seemed to be fumbling in the dark, Rabbit has emerged has one product that has given us a glimpse of what the AI future in the realm of personal use could look like.


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