AI for hearing aids sounds good

Story: Dr. Aaron Jones Sr.

Technology will transform how you interact with your hearing health-care professional.

Artificial intelligence once may have been the purview of only high-tech companies and science-fiction writers, but not anymore. Within just the past few years, AI has become

more widely available. You likely have AI-powered technologies scattered throughout your home, in your car, and at work. Just think of how many times a day you say, “Hey Siri,” “OK Google,” or “Alexa” before asking your various smart devices to play music, get driving directions, provide a weather report, and so on. The health-care sector is embracing this Internet of Things trend, including hearing-aid manufacturers who are developing ways to use AI to improve the wearer’s experience and transform how they interact with their hearing health-care professionals.

Hearing-aid technology advancements have enabled designers and manufacturers to create hearing aids that are smaller than ever, last an entire day on a single battery charge, and help the wearer carry on conversations in the loudest restaurant or quietest theater.

Renowned computer scientist Andrew Ng once said that tasks a typical person can do with no more than one second of thought can be automated with AI, and we’re already seeing that in the hearing health-care field with efforts to automate routine audiometry.

The next steps in the evolution of hearing aids include enabling them to communicate with other smart devices, and in the not-too-distant future, gather a wearer’s biometric data to assist health-care professionals with the diagnostic process.

Believe it or not, those with hearing loss often struggle just to hear the television while sitting in the quiet of their living rooms. Today, the technology exists to wirelessly connect hearing aids to TVs so wearers can enjoy their favorite programs and still carry on a conversation with others in the room.

That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when you consider other smart- home scenarios. A smart doorbell might send a signal to hearing aids to alert the wearer when someone’s at the door. Connecting hearing aids to intelligent AI assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant will enable wearers to enjoy the same user experience that connected speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home do. Imagine being able to instruct your hearing aids to set an alarm to wake you up in the morning, and use If This Then That (IFTT) to initiate a series of automated actions to drive your wake-up routine, like turning on lights, playing music, and getting last night’s sports scores, today’s weather report, and an update on traffic conditions for your commute.

Those scenarios sound fun and useful, but it’s AI’s ability to learn and continuously improve that I think makes the future so exciting. Beyond introducing new conveniences to your everyday life, AI can make your interactions with your hearing health-care professional both less time- consuming and more effective.

Today, you can use AI-powered chatbots accessible via websites and mobile messenger apps like Facebook Messenger to carry on virtual conversations with your doctor’s office and get answers to basic questions. For instance, you can type questions such as “When is my next appointment?,” “How can I tell if I suffer from hearing loss?,” or “What is the best hearing aid for me?” The AI-powered chatbot either provides answers or hands you off to a human.

Soon, AI embedded in hearing aids might enable health-care pros to automate assessment and diagnostic processes. We already are seeing attempts to automate hearing tests, and I expect to see AI used to facilitate remote hearing aid adjustments. If a patient does not like how his hearing aids sound, the hearing aids themselves may analyze multiple factors and perform an automated adjustment in real time. Advancements in machine learning, language models, acoustic models, voice recognition, emotion detection, confusion detection, and more will inevitably expand the reach of AI in hearing health care.

I’m not suggesting that AI will obviate the need for you to visit your hearing health-care professional. AI will enable you to handle some of the more routine tasks, but it cannot replace the counseling your doctor provides. That is an absolutely crucial aspect of hearing health care that is beyond the reach of automation. Complex decision-making based on subtle cues among a highly variable spectrum of patients will keep hearing health-care professionals in business for years to come.