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Why techies are excited about AI agents that do errands for you

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Last year, ChatGPT took the world by storm. This year, AI agents that do errands for you are all the rage. NPR's Bobby Allyn looked into why techies are so excited about it.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: ChatGPT can give you recipes, but it won't order food for you. Using AI to complete real-world tasks is something a whole slate of Silicon Valley startups are pouring millions of dollars into right now. One of the buzziest companies doing this is called Rabbit. They've developed a device called the Rabbit R1. It's a bright orange gadget about half the size of an iPhone. It has a button on the side that you push and then talk into, almost like a walkie-talkie. It'll order DoorDash for you, call an Uber, book a flight to Cancun. And it learns what you like, what your preferences are. It then uses this knowledge to make suggestions.

ASHLEY BAO: This is the first time that AI exists in a hardware format.

ALLYN: That's Ashley Bao, a spokeswoman for Rabbit, talking to me at the company's headquarters in Santa Monica.

BAO: 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, even Siri, cannot perform tasks from end to end and bring, really, words to action for you.

ALLYN: Now, when I tried it out, it didn't really bring any words into action since I was playing around with a limited demo version.

So to ask it a question, I push down on this button?

BAO: Yes, you push down on that button. And then...

ALLYN: And then ask.

BAO: ...When you see the three dots, then you ask.

ALLYN: What is the best taco restaurant in Santa Monica?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Based on the search results, popular taco restaurants in Santa Monica include Blue Plate Taco, Tacos Por Favor.

ALLYN: Por favor, but OK. It's got to work on its Spanish.

That Spanish pronunciation hasn't dampened enthusiasm. More than 80,000 people have preordered the Rabbit R1, which will start shipping in a couple months. It's just one of several efforts underway to be the go-to AI sidekick. Another company, Humane, has an AI Pin that can assist with tasks. Google and Microsoft are racing to develop products that will make reservations for you, maybe book a doctor's appointment, reschedule a meeting. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAM ALTMAN: Eventually, you'll just ask a computer for what you need, and it'll do all of these tasks for you.

ALLYN: AI this, AI that. After ChatGPT became a global hit, every online service bragged about using some kind of AI. Now, according to Duane Forrester, an analyst at the firm Yext, we're about to see that same phenomenon with gadgets.

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

ALLYN: But he wonders if something like an AI walkie-talkie is really necessary. Probably not. In fact, he says, when Siri and Alexa can start taking our orders to do things, won't these devices become useless?

FORRESTER: You don't need a different piece of hardware to accomplish this. What you need is this level of intelligence and utility in the current device.

ALLYN: A paper published last year by the center for AI safety warned against AI agents. It said if one of these assistants was given a goal - say, maximize my stock market profits - without being told how to achieve it, that could create some problems along the way. Some experts are now worried about AI assistants running amok because these new products are the first time we're seeing AI automate things in our offline lives. Back in Santa Monica, Rabbit R1 creative director Anthony Gargasz pitches the device as a way to get stuff done and never have to open an app again.

ANTHONY GARGASZ: Our screens are something that kind of take the essence of life away from us, and this device is meant to kind of enhance that and be a companion towards your experience of everyday life.

ALLYN: Now, this thing still has a screen. It's just a small one. And instead of looking at apps, you look at a bouncing cartoon rabbit head that does stuff for you. Does that really enhance life? In some very, very small way, maybe. Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.