The OG Hearing Aid Innovators

With so much innovation happening today in the hearing aid and hearing technology world, I am reminded of one of the earliest innovations in modern hearing aid technology. In the mid-1980s, Bell Labs was working furiously on what would become the first commercially successful multichannel compressor hearing aid.

The inventor and project lead, the late Fred Waldhauer, got his inspiration for amplitude compression of audio as a solution when driving one night listening to the radio in his car. Noting the difficulty he had hearing the radio when the window was down, he started thinking about how to solve the audibility problem he was experiencing with the radio (mulitchannel compression). After talking to people like Jont Allen and Edgar Villchur and realizing that the radio audibility in noise problem was similar to audibility problems caused by hearing loss, Fred created a team at Bell Labs in 1984 and started designing a two-channel wide dynamic range compressor ASIC for hearing aids.

After several years of development, Bell Labs decided to shut down Fred’s project. Rodney Perkins, an otologist and medical device entrepreneur in Silicon Valley who at the time had a stealth startup called ReSound, heard about this and flew out to Bell Labs to negotiate the acquisition of the technology. Rodney not only ended up acquiring the technology in 1987, but importantly acquired the rights to offer jobs to some of the Bell Labs team to work at ReSound and also acquired the rights to use the Bell Labs name in marketing of the technology (think: Intel Inside). Rodney asked his friend Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel, what the best way was to convince Bell Labs employees to quit their job in New Jersey and move to California to join his ReSound startup. Andy’s advice: fly them to California in the middle of winter. Rodney successfully recruited four employees to move to Redwood City, California to continue development:Fred, Vincent Pluvinage, Carlos Baez and Margaret Farrell (who married Vincent after moving to California!).

Hearing aids in the 1980s were cheap transistor devices that provided linear amplification with peak-clipping. What made ReSound such a great example of innovation in action is that, at the time of their first product launch in 1990, very few people thought that multichannel compression was a good idea. There were many prominent papers published by respected hearing scientists showing that compression had no advantage over linear processing, and most of the thought leaders in the hearing aid and hearing loss field believed that compression was worse than linear processing for hearing loss compensation–it distorts the signal and reduces envelope cues, for god’s sake! I suspect that Jont Allen’s involvement in the development of the chip at Bell Labs and his understanding of cochlear mechanics had something to do with the team’s persistent belief that multichannel compression was going to produce a superior solution. As with any great invention, there was a litany of people telling ReSound that their idea was wrong and not going to work. Meanwhile, Jont enjoyed going to hearing aid conferences and generating interest in what was coming from ReSound by telling people that Bell Labs had spent more money on the design of the ReSound chip than the annual sales of all hearing aids in a year–warning that a juggernaut was coming.

When ReSound launched its first product, the company also challenged the status quo in its approach to the market. ReSound priced their product at least twice the price of the next most expensive hearing aid (every one saying: you can’t do that, you’ll fail), and required audiologists to purchase proprietary equipment needed to program the devices and become certified before they could receive ReSound hearing aids to fit (again being told: you can’t do that, you’ll fail). Rodney and team basically did everything that the industry at the time told them was the wrong thing to do. And, of course, every decent hearing aid in the world today now has multiband compression.

It is difficulty today to think that people at one time believed that linear peak-clipping hearing aids were a better solution for people with hearing loss than ones with multiband compression. Producing a solution that everyone thinks won’t work, ignoring common wisdom and meeting new unmet needs, transforming an industry, and eventually seeing your the solution become a commonplace and de facto standard: all characteristics of truly great innovators embodied by the original ReSound team.

Creation of a Hearing Research Center

I mentioned in my previous post that Rodney Perkins’ startup motto Make it Happen inspired me to pursue my long-time vision for a translational research center for the hearing aid industry. I recently found the business plan that I wrote for such a center and sent to all the major hearing aid companies in early 2004, which led to the creation of the Starkey Hearing Research Center in Berkeley, California in late 2004. I had forgotten that my pitch was to create the US equivalent of the Eriksholm Research Center, except that the research would support the commercial business of the owner company.

I chose to locate the center in Berkeley for the opportunity to work with UC Berkeley professors Erv Hafter and the late David Wessel, the former because of his spatial hearing focus and engaging scientific mind, the latter because of his creative approach to audio processing for music. This proved valuable as work with Erv led to our seminal research (Sarampalis et al, 2009) showing that hearing aid technology can reduce listening effort, while our collaboration with David led to the self-fitting tool SoundPoint.

I hired the first two researchers for the center before it opened in December 2004: Sridhar Kalluri out of the University of Maryland and Deniz Başkent out of the House Ear Institute–both incredibly talented individuals who I knew had the potential to make an impact quickly in our research (and I wasn’t wrong). We spent the first month working in a sparse multi-desk postdoc room across the hall from Erv Hafter’s office on the UC Berkeley campus while we waited for renovations on our center to be completed.

I spent several days that month in Erv’s office debating how we might test whether hearing aids reduced cognitive load–what material should we use (words, nonsense sentences, meaningful sentences) what paradigm should we use (reaction time, dual attention task, pupillometry). Ultimately, Erv and I ended up writing a grant to fund the hiring of Tassos Sarampolis to lead this project. Tassos created a car driving simulation for the first experiment to test the effect of hearing performance on driving accuracy. When that didn’t work out, we settled on the more traditional cognitive load measures of reaction time and dual attention tasks. Ultimately, we ended up proving that signal processing similar to both hearing aid noise reduction and directional microphones reduced listening effort, a major breakthrough in understanding hearing aid benefit.

The first SHRC crew, from left to right: Erin Moran, Bill Woods, Deniz Başkent, Kelly Fitz, Nazanin Nooraei, our intern Markus Goffart, Sridhar Kalluri

My Top Career Influencers

At the start of this new year, I’ve been thinking about how I got to where I am in my career. While I’ve had the privilege of working with many amazing and talented people, the two most important people who shaped who I am professionally are Neal Viemeister and Rodney Perkins.

Neal Viemeister and Rodney Perkins

Neal Viemeister, who passed away in 2020, trained me to be a scientist. I came to his lab after finishing my PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, where my research applied digital signal processing to auditory neural processing. Neal’s lab in the psychology department of the University of Minnesota was (arguably) the top psychoacoustic lab in the country at the time. What helped with the transition from engineering to psychology was the way in which Neal applied signal detection theory to his thinking about the performance of the human auditory system, along with his rigorous and mathematical approach to basic auditory perception research. Neal helped me discover that while engineering is about solving problems, science is about identifying important questions and developing elegant solutions to gather data that can answer them.

Neal engendered robust scientific debates in his lab. Every week those of us in his lab would argue over our ideas on the function of auditory perception and the meaning of our latest data, and Neal would bet a cookie on who was right if he disagreed with our hypotheses. He didn’t care if he was right or wrong in these situations but enjoyed the debate and working through the theoretical arguments. Neal wasn’t dogmatic about his scientific beliefs, but he made us deeply justify why our theories made sense and our experiments were the right ones to answer our hypotheses. He would always frame these discussions with a razor-sharp application of logic–imagine applying the “five whys” to scientific debate. Neal let us explore our ideas while he nudged us towards the best ways to design experiments, still letting us figure things out for ourselves.

There was no one I was more eager to talk to at scientific conferences than Neal because he would bring clarity to how the latest research fit into our current world-view of hearing science and provide meaningful alternate explanations for findings that were presented, often illuminating gaps in thinking, flaws in experimental design or missed hypotheses by the researchers at the conference. Debating science with Neal was a joy that I continued long after I left his lab to join the hearing aid industry.

If Neal was responsible for the scientist part of me, then Rodney Perkins was responsible for the entrepreneurial side. Rodney is one of the most successful medical device entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. I was privileged to work at three companies that he founded (ReSound, SoundID and Earlens), help him start one of them and significantly grow another. Rodney has founded a dozen (and counting) medical device companies in Silicon Valley, all resulting from his finding unmet needs in hearing health and developing solutions that often benefited other fields of health care.

Rodney embodies the prototypical entrepreneur. He identifies unmet needs and continually iterates ideas for solutions until he comes upon one that not only works but is practical and implementable in medical practice. When we were applying Bluetooth technology to hearing aid technology at SoundID in 2002, Rodney explained that most innovation in the Valley resulted from finding technology and solutions in one field and applying them to another; the secret for success was identifying those opportunities and timing it so that the resulting solution can be successfully commercialized. Rodney emphasized that you need to have a deep understanding of unmet needs in health care so that you can always be on the lookout for possible solutions emerging in other fields.

Being in meetings with Rodney almost always exposed me to the creative process in action. Rodney would offer idea after idea on how one might solve the problem being discussed, never focusing on the obvious or easy fix but on creative solutions born out of new ways of thinking about the problem. He constantly sketched new ideas and solutions to problems in his notebooks, which were incredible to see, and created an endless resource for scientists and engineers to investigate and prototype solutions.

In addition to seeing the innovation process firsthand with Rodney, I also observed the stoic nature required to be successful in the startup world. In a world known for hot-headed CEOs and egos causing chaos within their companies, Rodney dealt gracefully with every setback. Whether it was technical setbacks in a prototypes, challenges with VC funding, or any of the hundred issues that arise when starting and building a company, Rodney took everything with a calm demeanor. Yet he was persistent in driving progress towards what he wanted to accomplish, continuing to push where others might give up and focus on something else. This ethic was embodied in a plaque that he gave to early employees in his startups which read “Make It Happen”, encouraging everyone to find and implement solutions to problems, to accomplish yourself that which is important and not stand on the sidelines waiting for someone else to do it. As Rodney said many times and as he embodied himself, the hard part of innovation and entrepreneurship isn’t developing ideas; what is the difficult and challenging part is the execution and bringing the ideas to the market for people to use–making it happen. He instilled this ethos in people around him: to not wait for someone else to solve problems that you see, but to solve them yourself. I took this to heart in 2004 when I realized that there was an unmet need in the hearing aid industry for a translational research center: a place that would take basic hearing science and translate it into solutions for audiologists and those with hearing loss. I took inspiration from the Make It Happen plaque sitting on my desk, and from years of watching Rodney make it happen, and wrote a business plan for such a venture and sent it to all of the major hearing aid companies. A year later, I opened the Starkey Hearing Research Center in Berkeley, California–I made it happen.

Thank you, Neal Viemeister and Rodney Perkins, for the inspiration and guidance that you’ve provided me in my career, which would not be what it is today without your impact.

Innovation Lessons from a Mouse

ImageOn July 3 2013, Douglas C Engelbart died. He was the inventor of, among other revolutionary computer advances, the computer mouse, and his history is worth considering for what it says about innovation.

In 1968, Engelbart made the first public demonstration of the mouse at a computer conference in San Francisco in front of over a thousand of the world’s top computer scientists. The public introduction of the mouse at that presentation, today called “the mother of all demos”, had little impact on the acceptance or use of the mouse at that time. In fact, the computer mouse languished for over a decade at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center until Steve Jobs saw the mouse during a Xerox PARC visit and in 1984 introduced the mouse to consumers with the Macintosh. Jobs knew that acceptance of the mouse by consumers would be difficult, though, so he eliminated cursor keys from the Mac to force consumers to use the mouse as the only means of moving the cursor. “Jobs did not believe that the customer was always right; if they wanted to resist using a mouse, they were wrong.” (Steve Jobs, p. 137).

The facts that the computer mouse did not naturally get accepted upon its public display in 1968 and that consumers in 1984 had to be forced to use the mouse define two of the top challenges to innovation: (i) customers can’t tell you what innovation they want, and (ii) customers will be resistant to innovation that changes their current way of doing things.

Henry Ford famously said of his development of the car, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Customers are well known to be unreliable sources for innovative ideas and for assessing the value of innovative ideas because their only point of reference is what they already know—they can’t tell you that they need something new unless it is an obvious modification to what already exists. This makes sense when you consider that one of the key characteristics of innovation is risk: if customers are asking for a technology, there’s no risk-taking in giving it to them and therefore there’s no innovation being created. No one was asking for multiband compression in 1989, and the introduction of wide dynamic range compression in hearing aids was initially rejected by experienced hearing aid wearers; they wanted more gain, having only experienced linear hearing aids, while compression actually provided less! No hearing aid wearer ever said that they want their next hearing aids to have frequency lowering—in the early 2000s, most hearing aid experts predicted that frequency lowering would not have value in a hearing aid—yet today frequency lowering has provided benefit to hundreds of thousands of people with severe high-frequency hearing loss.

“Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” said Jobs. This is because customers often don’t realize that they have an unmet need until a solution appears. Humans are adept at finding and getting used to workarounds to problems so they don’t realize that the potential for an improved solution exists. Proctor & Gamble employees once conducted consumer research about the user-friendliness of their detergent boxes. Their customer focus groups did not reveal any problems, but one of those customers was observed to keep a screwdriver beside their box of Tide. Why was the screwdriver there, the P&G researchers asked? To open the box of Tide, replied the customer, not recognizing that they had so gotten used to a workaround to a problem with P&G’s product that they were unable to recognize the opportunity for improvement. This is why superstar innovators like IDEO, the world’s top design firm, rely on customer observation rather than focus groups for their breakthrough customer insights.

Some innovations are accepted right away by consumers but, like the computer mouse, many take time for people to recognize the benefit that the innovation provides. This is not unlike acceptance of gain by first-time hearing aid users, who initially don’t want their full gain prescription and are satisfied with insufficient audibility but eventually learn to value the full gain prescription that meets the needs of their hearing loss.

As technology advances—with wireless technology accessories, new signal processing features, advanced user interfaces, connected hearing health—you will be faced with these innovation challenges of how to get your patients to accept innovation and to accept the change in behavior that some innovation requires. You yourself will also be faced with this challenge as new tools for fitting your patients are created and new hearing health solutions for better meeting the unique needs of your patients are developed. Similar to the introduction of innovation throughout history, many of the innovations that will be introduced to your business may not be obvious solutions that you have been asking for and may require a change in your process with patients. When the new computer mouse of the hearing aid field is introduced, will you give it a try and see if it benefits your business and your patients?

Inspiring Innovation

I gave a 25 minute talk on innovation to over 3000 customers of Starkey Hearing Technologies in Las Vegas. It’s purpose was to educate people on what innovation is beyond buzzwords and to inspire people to innovate themselves. I also walk through my own innovation journey, highlighting the innovation challenges that I faced as a I developed a Research department for Starkey. I think it was a fun talk and I received great feedback from people. I continue to give similar versions of this talk.

The talk is in two parts:

An Olympic Anthem Made To Stick

The New York Times had an article today on successful and failed commercials from the just completed Olympics. I eagerly read it because I wanted to see what they said about the one commercial that I liked so much that I actually rewound it (using Tivo) and watched it many, many times. And I actually stopped my Tivo (an act that should be a metric of marketing success) whenever I spotted this commercial while fast-forwarding through Olympic commercial breaks. Not only that, I searched for the commercial on YouTube and watched it again. Not only that, I found the original source for the commercial and watched that again. Surprisingly, Stuart Elliott, the NYTimes article’s author, didn’t mention the commercial at all in his article on memorable commercials during the Olympics. So I will.

Nike’s United We Rise commercial takes film of Marvin Gaye singing the Star Spangled Banner at a 1983 NBA game and intermixes it with footage of the American Olympic basketball team preparing for the games. The effect, for me, was mesmerizing.

The appeal of the commercial, of course, is Marvin Gaye. To be able to take a national anthem and make it so different, so soulful, and so memorable is stunning even today. I can’t even imagine what the reaction was in 1983, although I know that Jose Feliciano almost ruined his career doing something similar at a baseball game in 1968.

What makes the Nike commercial so memorable? Let’s consider it within the context of Made To Stick, one of the more insightful commentaries on marketing of the past several years. In their book, Chip Heath and Dan Heath (brothers, one of whom is a Stanford Business School professor) outline the qualities of what makes a message (or commercial) sticky—what makes people remember a message and want to tell others about it, or in my case want to watch it over and over again.

The Heaths identify six characteristics that make a message sticky. Let’s examine the Nike commercial with these principles in mind:

  1. SIMPLICITY. The commercial’s message is simple enough: Gaye brought greatness in his own way to  honoring America, and the Redeem Team is going to do the same, in a way that will be memorable for ages. With style, and with a whole lot of coolness.
  2. UNEXPECTEDNESS. Needless to say, associating Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem with the Olympic basketball team was quite unexpected. Check.
  3. CONCRETENESS. Well, I’m not so sure what’s concrete about this commercial. Certainly it’s meant to embody Nike’s Just Do It, but without knowing that slogan already one would have a difficult time pulling that from the images. I’m going to rule that the commercial doesn’t capture this principle.
  4. CREDIBILITY. I believe that part of what Gaye brings to this commercial, believe it or not, is credibility to the USA basketball team. Gaye was a world-famous music icon who had recently had a hit with “Sexual Healing”, yet he chose to open an NBA game with a moving rendition of the national anthem that was as likely to hurt as help his career. Gaye took an American-born music genre and honored his country by applying his incredible talents in that genre to his national anthem. The American team had the ability to take an American-born game and apply their incredible talents in that game to honoring their country. The question pointed towards the USA basketball team as they entered the Beijing Olympics was whether they’d put their NBA stardom on the shelf during the Olympics and focus on representing America against the best of the rest of the world to the best of their ability. In today’s star-driven society, it’s easy to imagine a Kobe saying, “What’s the point? I’ve already achieved greatness in the greatest basketball league in the world.” Well, let’s consider what Marvin Gaye would say to that…
  5. EMOTIONS. Music has a way of touching people’s emotions unlike any other art form. Not only was Gaye’s performance masterful, when have you ever heard a national anthem transformed into a pop-art-form performance that preserved the spirit of the original anthem? There’s a reason that some of the most memorable (sticky) commercials have featured memorable music. Recent JC Penny commercials come to mind. This VW commercial from several years ago is said to have caused the significant posthumous revival of Nick Drake. And, of course, there’s Apple’s iPod commercials.
  6. STORIES. Well, there isn’t a strong narrative here. The message is more implied, as I’ve outlined above. I’m ruling that they didn’t meet this one as well.

So, that’s four out of the six Sticky principles achieved by this commercial. Not surprising that it stuck with me.

Given the nature of this blog, I’m forced to consider: was Marvin Gaye’s performance innovative? Given the requirement of economic value that many of my innovation colleagues require for something to be considered innovative, I suppose not. This Nike commercial, however, undoubtedly is.

Todd Mintz has a wonderful recount of his attendance at the NBA game in which Gaye performed. Below is the 60–second Nike commercial that I watched so many times on my Tivo (there’s 150 second version available on YouTube as well). And below that is film of the original Marvin Gaye performance. Enjoy.

Nike ad:

Original performance:

Lessons from the Olympics

Phelps2The Olympics are always inspiring with the amazing results achieved by the competing athletes. It’s easy to look at someone like Michael Phelps and decide that he provides no inspiration for the average person because he has been groomed for over a decade to excel at this event due to his extraordinary natural talent–and the reality is that yes he has.

What is easy to ignore in Michael’s life-story, however, is that he has worked extraordinarily hard to get to the position that he is in. Unbelievably extraordinarily hard. And so has every athlete at the Olympics. They’ve found what they are good at and have worked extraordinarily hard at doing their best at it. This is not only the secret of successful athletes in all sports but also the secret of successful entrepreneurs and technologists worldwide, and a model of success that can be accessed by anyone: find what you are good at and work extraordinarily hard at it. Don’t be lulled into the job model that has been created for those who work at something that merely defines something they can do. There is an unspoken job model that is not taught in school and never really discussed, but it is a model for those who find themselves in the unique position of being able to work at what they are best at:

If you resonate at your job, ring it as hard as humanly possible.

I am constantly amazed at talented people who have the ability to do great things in their professions…yet they don’t achieve greatness because they treat their job like the average job that they’ve been taught to expect: working nine-to-five (well, nine-to-six is the norm these days) and only do what they are asked to do.

Finding what you are good at and working as hard as you can at that is, frankly, a luxury that most people don’t have. Most people aren’t able to spend their salaried time doing what they do well—most people just work to make a living no matter what the job. Being paid to do what you do well is an opportunity that perhaps one can only truly appreciate at the end of one’s career—to be thankful for being paid to be best at exactly what one is in fact best at. The satisfaction of this unique situation is not about being paid for it, of course; it’s about being judged at what one does best and being given the opportunity to excel at what one does best. If one takes that opportunity, that is.

OlympicsThat opportunity, of course, defines the lives of Olympic athletes. And nothing defines them more than matching their talents to their training and working as hard as they can to be best as they can. In the spectacular finish of the American 400m freestyle relay, the finish of Jason Lezak was spectacular: his performance seemingly pre-destined for the history books, and an achievement celebrated worldwide. Yet what’s not seen nor appreciated by the Olympics viewers is the incredible—and I mean incredible beyond what most people can ever imagine—incredible work ethic that Lezak executed to put himself in the position to be able to make one of the most amazing comebacks ever.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who became an online sensation when he gave a Last Lecture after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (and who passed away soon after), provided simple yet insightful advice about achievements and work ethic:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!

Work hard. Work harder than others. Work hardest if you are really good at it. Challenges simply exist for you to overcome then if you are up to it.

Most people complain about their jobs and the perceived difficulties and obstacles that they experience. This tip is for the few of you who want to be able to look back on your career with sanguine satisfaction rather than a melancholy attitude towards all that you simply put up with: the brick wall is there for a reason, so let your colleagues complain about it while you scale it, put it behind you, and face new challenges that few ever progress far enough to even come up against.

Better than Prime Time TV

I just discovered a pretty interesting video site that describes itself as a Brilliant Ideas Network for Discourse and Debate: fora.tv. It’s videos include conference speeches and interviews, such as several from the Aspen Idea Festival. Unfortunately, most of the ones that I saw were abbreviated versions of the full speech/interview—tantalizing tidbits instead of complete content.

The video/audio content on the site is organized by category and varies from Entrepreneurship to Science to Visual Arts & Film to (of course) Innovation.

The videos aren’t as mind-changing as as the incredible TED talks, but are definitely worth spending time with.

As a sample, check out this discussion on innovation and R&D breakthroughs:

 

Disruptive Innovation in Health Care

Most people interested in innovation will have some familiarity with Harvard B-School professor Clayton Christensen and his classic books The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution. Christensen recently lectured at MIT on the topic of his upcoming book, The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution to Health Care. Christensen is an excellent lecturer and I recommend that you watch this video, courteously pointed to by Irving Wladawsky-Berger who also provides an excellent summary of the class. Make sure that you allot time for watching—the video is 88 minutes long.

Christensen spends the first half of the lecture reviewing the basic concepts of his first book: the process of disruptive innovation.

Here’s a tip for those who don’t want to watch the video or read his books: if you find yourself in a business that is happily conceding low-margin commodity business to small start-ups and happily retreating to the more lucrative high-margin business, be careful or you may end up as one of Christensen’s case-studies on extinction by disruptive innovation (you will never forget this lesson if you watch Christensen’s video).

I love the way that Christensen phrases his preventive medicine for avoiding extinction by disruptive innovation: create a division that is given an unfettered charter to kill the parent—imagine that mission statement on a conference room wall!

Christensen’s prediction for the future of health care (which begins around the 38–minute mark of the video) is that it will experience disruption due to three emerging technologies:

  • molecular diagnostics,
  • imaging technology,
  • high-bandwidth telecommunication.

Part of his message is something that I heard biotech guru Steve Burrill talk about a couple of years ago when predicting future trends in biotech: that better diagnostics will allow health care professionals to treat causes rather than symptoms. I’ve talked about how my field of hearing impairment will go through a similar transition, with better diagnostics allowing us to identify the physiology behind different hearing loss etiologies and provide individualized treatments. This falls under the general theme of individualization in health care, a future trend not only in my field by in health care in general.

For the rest of Christensen’s thinking on innovation opportunities in health care, check out the video—it’s worth the time.

New Yorker on Speech Recognition

I always hold my breath and get a sinking feeling in my stomach whenever a field in which I have expertise takes center stage in a news story or pop-culture piece. More often than not, there are misrepresentations of both sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated aspects of the field (e.g., see Wired Magazine).

Such errors are a common occurrence in movies and television—accuracy in details play a secondary role to the story, and the vast majority of the audience has no idea whether the details are accurate or not. Pilots may object that the location of landing gear switches are not accurately portrayed in a movie, but does anyone else really care? (I recall the howls of protest that arose as outraged chess players complained about inaccuracies in the portrayal of competitive chess in the charming and under-rated movie Searching for Bobby Fischer—seriously, does anyone really care that the players weren’t writing down their moves, or that the games were actioned-up? Chess players worldwide should have been grateful that such a beautiful portrayal of the game was the framework for such a great family film).

HALThus, it was with surprise that I read a recently published article in the New Yorker on speech recognition by John Seabrook that provided an interesting and accurate tour of speech recognition, with brief asides on on a variety of related fields—the physiology of speech production, the physiology of hearing, prosody of speech—all tied together by the promise of computer-based communication that HAL presented in 2001 when the article’s author was  a little kid. I was also surprised to see a popular magazine reference John Pierce’s Acoustical Society letter Whither Speech Recognition, a scathing throwdown on the field of speech recognition in 1969 by the then executive director of research at Bell Laboratories (in this highly debated letter, Pierce criticized the state of speech recognition research at the time for having a “scarcity in the field of people who behave like scientists and of results that look like science.”) I highly recommend reading this New Yorker article for anyone with an interested in the topic.

One odd aspect of the story is that it ends with a discussion of a company called Sound Intelligence, which has developed audio sensor technology that detects violent activity on city streets for use by police. The company is cited as an example of the successful application of the work that Seabrook detailed on detecting emotion in speech. An engineer of the company, whom I heard speak about their technology last year, is quoted as saying that the Sound Intelligence grew out of auditory modeling research at the University of Groningen and its application to separating speech from background noise. It’s unclear to me how much the success of the technology requires complex auditory models or any of the science and technology the article had detailed up to that point. While I applaud Sound Intelligence’s success, the inclusion of their technology as the coda to an otherwise great review of the speech recognition field makes for an empty conclusion. I’m sure that the folks at Sound Intelligence, however, would disagree with me completely.