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A Minneapolis-based company uses AI to give hearing aids advanced features like real-time language translation, fall detection and alerts.
We hear a lot of headlines about concerns over artificial intelligence and what it might mean for the future. But it's not all bad: Consider hearing loss.
Friendly AI could be a key for some folks to regain this essential sense.
Sound is everywhere. But if you're one of the estimated 40 million Americans who have trouble hearing, says Paul Belting, a hearing aid user, "you are truly missing more than you realize."
Belting would know. He says he went in for a hearing test kicking and screaming.
"What I found myself doing is that I was faking it, you know, at business meetings," he said.
Dave Fabry, chief innovation officer at the technology company Starkey, says, "It's a very common journey to gradually start to withdraw, take it for granted until it's lost. And then all of a sudden, five to 10 years go by and they've delayed and lost out on that time. And that's a tragedy."
Belting is now 60 — awaiting the arrival of his first grandchild, and thankful for his nearly undetectable hearing aids.
"You just don't want to miss a thing," he said.
Now, audiologists are finding people much younger than Belting are missing things. Brandon Sawalich, the CEO of the Minnesota-based Starkey, says 1 in 7 teenagers is having hearing loss already, due to things like earpods.
Getting young people, or anyone for that matter, to want to wear hearing aids is a challenge. There has long been a stigma associated with hearing loss, so much so that at one point women even wore jewelry to hide the fact that they were struggling.
At Starkey's campus in the suburbs of Minneapolis, the company hopes artificial intelligence will incentivize getting help sooner. Part of the problem is perception. These hearing aids, powered by AI, aren't just for grandma and grandpa.
"For me, the best case is I get on a plane, I'm talking to my wife on the phone. And then some millennial says, 'What are those things?' I can interject into that conversation and talk to them about all of the things that they can do," said Fabry.
Starkey's Genesis AI hearing aids can make what you hear crisper, but they can also serve as a personal assistant. You can use them as a phone, or listen to music. There's an accidental fall detection feature. Sawalich says, "If somebody falls, it'll text up to three people."
They can also translate foreign languages. These AI hearing aids recalibrate up to 80 million times an hour, allowing them to act on their own, like a healthy human brain that scans your environment.
"The devices will automatically monitor the listening environment, whether there's speech present, whether there's noise present, whether there's wind, whether there's music, and they will automatically adapt and apply features appropriate only when necessary," said Fabry.
For Starkey, this is only the beginning. Imagine predicting falls before they happen, or other health monitors. Starkey leaders say you should think about it as a tool that gives you superpowers, without replacing certain human touches.
"The things that AI can do is pattern recognition and moves. But I think empathy, intuition and caring are still things that we humans have in the best machines ever made," said Fabry.
And if attracting younger people to the product is the goal, it's already working.
Sawalich's own son wanted a set for his 12th birthday — but they got him grounded.
"Well, school called, and he used them in his French class to translate. Now, they were upset. And I was like, that's pretty resourceful. Right?" he said.
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