Starkey Research & Clinical Blog

Informed Dreaming for a Better Hearing Tomorrow

Part of my day job is to dream – not to daydream but to dream in a disciplined and focused way! I call this informed dreaming, and I believe it is essential for some of the other parts of my job. Because what I do is invent the future. Not the whole future – just a little slice. But this is a very important slice of the future. As Senior Director of Research at Starkey Hearing Technologies, envisioning the future is an essential part of designing the listening technology for tomorrow.

Hearing aids have undergone amazing changes over the last couple of decades. The move to digital ushered in a new age. Enabling technologies such as multiband compression, feedback cancellation, noise reduction, speech enhancement, environment classification and a host of other signal processing technologies that have significantly extended listening capability.

Wireless was the next major stepping stone, allowing direct communication and control from smart phones, the development of enhanced directional technologies, binaural linking and preservation of spatial cues, and new forms of noise reduction. The well is far from dry.

But what’s the next big step? Good research — research that takes the solutions to the next level and has a time horizon beyond the immediate capabilities of current platforms and technologies. Ten or even five years out, we have to imagine the capabilities of the technological environments in which our new devices will land. This is where the informed dreaming comes in. Predicting the future is a perilous business but an essential component of the sorts of applied research that we do at Starkey.

So what might this future world look like? The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (also known as “The Obscure” or the “weeping philosopher”) wrote that the only constant was change – quoted by Plato as saying that “you could not step twice into the same river.” Heraclitus could have never imagined how fast that river could flow – a torrent, a rapid that sweeps all before it! Today, the landscape, the very course of the river changes before our eyes.

What we do in research now is based on the science and research of millions of scientists across the world. One estimate of the size of today’s scientific knowledge is the number of peer reviewed articles, which according to the influential scientific journal Nature last year totalled 1.8 million peer reviewed articles published cross 28,000 scientific journals. More to the point, this number is increasing with a compound growth rate of 9 percent a year – this means that the scientific knowledge is doubling every nine years! It shouldn’t surprise us then that in 10 years’ time, like Dorothy, we might suspect that “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Over the next few weeks this blog will explore technology and social changes that are extremely relevant to our mission to transform the lives of millions of people whose hearing is challenged. Beethoven, the musical genius who bridged and defined the Classical to the Romantic periods of western music, wrote to his brothers at the onset of his own deafness.  For him it was the crippling social impairment, the loss of his ability to communicate with those he cared for and loved, that drove him to contemplate suicide. It wasn’t his inability to hear the notes of the piano that made him most desperate (although he lamented this most keenly). The great insult to his life was the social isolation that deafness forced upon him. He could still hear his music in his mind. He could only guess at the rest. Fortunately for us, he chose a more philosophical route. In 1802, he wrote

“Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else – Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein.”  (see HERE for a scan of the original letter and a translation)

His brothers (Carl and Johann) never received his letter – it was found amongst his papers after his death, but it is a most poignant statement of the catastrophe that hearing impairment visits upon all humankind.

It is critical that we understand the possibilities that the raging river of scientific discovery can provide to remove this veil of isolation, this inability to communicate that forces itself upon otherwise engaged and productive individuals.

Over the next few weeks, this blog will introduce us to the Internet of Things – a near future state, where not only are the things in the world connected and communicating but include a huge range of sensors and data gathering devices that provide a rich and detailed real-time picture of the world. This blog will touch on Big Data, the Semantic Web, Artificial Intelligence and Super Intelligence. We are already immersed in some of this and the only uncertainty is not “if” but “when.” Wearables and hearables, biosensors that touch the skin or dwell beneath the skin, tattoos that transmit, jewellery that knows the focus of the mind’s eye and much more!

My challenge and the challenge of my team, is to understand how we leverage these technologies and this tumultuous torrent of scientific discovery to improve the lives of millions.