This month, in my Scientific American column, I wrote about the new age of hearing aids that’s about to dawn. Thanks to a new law, an audiologist consultation will no longer be required to buy hearing aids—and as a result, companies like Apple, Samsung, and Bose are free to enter the market. The hope is that all kinds of interesting new ear-based innovation might result.
As part of a story for “CBS Sunday Morning,” I interviewed Achin Bhowmik. He’s the chief technology officer at Starkey, the only U.S.-based hearing-aid maker. He joined Starkey after spending 15 years as a VP at Intel, in charge of the Perceptual Computing group—that is, he worked with sensors and artificial intelligence to help machines perceive the world the way we do.
At Starkey, he uses similar—”but instead of making an autonomous robot, I get to help people sense and understand the world better,” he says.
Bhowmik believes that a hearing aid can do a lot more for us than amplify sound. At the moment, he says, “We’ll transform the hearing aid with sensors and AI to become a true gateway to your health.”
For starters, new Starkey models coming later this year contain accelerometers—motion sensors like the ones in our phones. “It’s going to become your physical activity tracker,” he says, capable of counting steps and monitoring your heart rate. Your ear, it turns out, is a great place to get a pulse. “We are so close to the brain. We are able to get high-fidelity signal for heart rate decoding. Suddenly, there’s a drop of 30 beats per minute; your doctor should know that. Right?”
“But let’s go one step beyond that: Fall detection,” he says. “Falls are a major health hazard—in fact, number nine in the list of top ten health hazard for senior adults. Fifty percent of older adults that fall die within a year.” The new hearing aid, he says, will automatically detect a fall and send an alert to your loved ones.
Finally, he says, there’s yet another frontier for an ear-based computer: translations.
“It is a listening device,” Bhowmik says. “If I’m already using a hearing aid, which is connected via the iPhone to the power of the cloud, I should be able to ask a question in English, and a Chinese person would hear that in Chinese [coming from my phone], reply back in Chinese, and I will hear the answer in English through my hearing aid.”
The in-ear computer depicted in the sci-fi movie “Her,” he says, “is within sight. The advances that are happening in computation, artificial intelligence, connectivity, connectivity to the cloud, and sensors are bringing that feature to reality sooner than we would have thought even a few years ago.”