You Are Not Alone
July 15, 2014
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July 23, 2014

How Exponential Growth in Computing Power Will Bring About ‘Magical’ Hearing Aids

On National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” recently was the story of a woman whose hearing problems were diagnosed at age 5, in 1993. She had moderate to severe loss of high- and low-frequency hearing, and got her first hearing aids — which were large and crude compared to today’s hearing-aid technology. You can read or listen to the story here: “Hearing Aid Evolution Unveils What The World Sounds Like In ‘3-D’.”

Today, Kathleen Raven works as a health journalist and wears “invisible” inside-the-ear hearing aids. As she told the NPR reporter, each time she received a new pair, every few years, advancements in the technology allowed her to hear more sounds than she could with the previous older hearing aids. Her current in-ear devices (the report doesn’t indicate what brand or model, but notes that they cost US$7,000) allow her to hear notes in Beethoven’s music that she had never heard before. I found Raven’s story noteworthy, because it demonstrates how advances in technology are moving at an ever-accelerating rate. Improvements in hearing devices’ capabilities are made possible in large part by the trends of miniaturization of computer chips, and exponential growth in computing power, at lower cost. What’s ahead, therefore, will be astounding in terms of what hearing aids can do. (Perhaps the late author Douglas AdamsBabel fish universal in-ear translator wasn’t impossible fantasy!) Most people intuitively think that improvements in technology advance on a linear path (i.e., a straight line that continues to rise at the same rate, year after year). With computing and information technology, it’s very different. Ray Kurzweil, a brilliant inventor and futurist who now is heading up artificial intelligence for Google, first explained in 2001 that computing and information technology is on an exponential growth curve. Back then he said: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” If you want to see Kurzweil explain this expertly in under 3 minutes, watch the video of him speaking in 2005 below. (Otherwise, skip over it and my article continues below.)

To get back to the incredible gains in capability and shrinking of size for hearing aids in the 33 years that Raven has been using generation after generation of the devices, if you think about the exponential growth of capability in the coming few years, it will be an amazing time to be alive and have ears — whether they work perfectly or not (slightly or severely). In 2014, it’s pretty amazing that nearly invisible hearing aids are available that can stream music from your phone directly to your ears, or direct a caller’s voice on a phone call wirelessly to your ears, or automatically tune out much background noise in order for the user to hear the person speaking to them in a noisy environment. But if Kurzweil is right about the continued exponential growth of computing and information technology, then those are just teasers for what will be possible soon. (I covered another angle to the future of hearing-aid technology in this older Open Ears blog post.) This gives me the opportunity to fantasize about what could be ahead for hearing devices. Some of these ideas may be too far-fetched to become reality. But others might be possible in a few short years when a chip the size of a grapefruit seed has as much computational power as a 2014 high-end laptop computer. I view this as an opportunity to spark the imagination of hearing-aid designers who are working on future models. And I encourage you to add your hearing-aid wish list items to the comments section of this article. Perhaps we’ll influence development of future hearing-aid features. OK, fantasy-futurist mode is ON…

  • Automatic, real-time language translation. This probably will require a mobile device in pocket or purse for the translation, sent to hearing aids wirelessly. Also a way to block or lessen the other-language speaker’s voice so that the hearing-aid audio translation can be heard well.
  • Voice-command settings. Rather than use a remote, a phone app, or buttons to adjust your hearing aids, it would be so convenient to simply speak a command and change a setting. (“OK, Phonak. Increase left volume 1 step.” If you’re familiar with “OK, Google” as a way to invoke a Google search on a mobile device or computer, you’ll know that such voice control requires a special launch phrase.) Another possible interface to adjust your hearing aids are “smart glasses” which would read blink commands or special eye movements and send commands to your ear devices.
  • Closed-captioning. Speaking of smart glasses linked to hearing aids, another possibility is that the glasses could provide “closed captioning” in your visual field at the same time your hearing aids are enhancing sounds based on your level of hearing loss. This would be incredibly useful for those with profound hearing loss, where even with hearing aids verbal comprehension is difficult.
  • “Aiming” focused listening by looking at the sound source. Researchers already are working on this idea, which incorporates eyetracking (done with special eyeglasses) with an acoustic beam. In a noisy restaurant, for example, such a system would allow you to look at the person speaking a couple seats away and “focus” your hearing on his or her speech.
  • Implanted hearing aids run with body’s energy. This concept is still 5-10 years out, researchers say, but the expectation is that by then, tiny hearing aids could be fully implanted inside the ear, and batteries recharged by energy from the human body (using inductive charging and energy harvesting).
  • An end to changing hearing-aid batteries. Related to the item above, it should soon be possible for hearing aids to be charged wirelessly, including from your smartphone while you’re wearing the hearing devices. This would be especially useful for in-ear hearing aids that can be worn long term. For worn-over-the-ear hearing aids, it could spell the end of ordering dozens of batteries each year and fumbling to replace them when they run out of juice every few days.
  • Specialty devices that integrate with hearing aids. This is a trend that’s already begun, of course. For instance, it’s possible for a smartphone GPS direction app to send audio turn-by-turn directions to hearing aids. But we can imagine other devices interfacing with our hearing aids: e.g., binoculars or a spotting scope that include a shotgun microphone which could amplify not only your ability to see, say, a bird at a distance, but amplify the bird’s call picked up by an acoustic beam. (Of course, it’s easy to foresee such next-generation binoculars being used for nefarious purposes, as well as being handy for police and investigative work. Intelligence agencies, the military, and spies already have this capability. What will be new is bringing these capabilities to consumers.)

Those are enough ideas from me. It’s your turn: what would you like to see from hearing aids of the future? Remember, we’re talking about a not-too-distant future where tremendous computing power can be harnessed in a tiny silicon chip. Don’t limit your imagination to what you think is possible to achieve. Exponential acceleration in the power of technology makes what was fantasy now possible in the coming years.

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Steve is a former digital-media program director and university instructor. He wears behind-the-ear Phonak Audéo Q‘s.
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Steve is a former digital-media program director and university instructor. He wears behind-the-ear Phonak Audéo Q‘s.