Advances in Robotics Help Those with Hearing Loss

Digital image representing sensors, robotics and technology.

Hearing aid technology has improved at a lightning pace. One the latest potential breakthroughs come from the field of robotics. A team studying how robots and humans interact has developed a sensor that can detect the frequencies of sounds. This is important when it comes to treating hearing loss, as the inability to discern sounds at different frequencies is what leads many people to need the help of hearing aids. This connection between hearing loss and the study of robots may profoundly improve the quality of life for those who wear hearing aids.

What Are Sound Frequencies?

Sound frequencies are a measure of their pitch, commonly divided into categories such as high and low. A high frequency would be something like a bird chirping, and a low frequency the growl of a tiger. The measurement of sound frequencies is in hertz, or Hz. In our everyday lives we hear sounds that range between about 250 to 6,000 Hz.

Why Are Sound Frequencies So Important?

People with healthy hearing can hear sounds with frequencies between about 20 and 20,000 Hz. The sounds that make up human speech come in different frequencies, so it is important that we can hear across a wide range. For example, consonant sounds have a high frequency, including letters like “s,” “f,” and “h”. These letters come in at 1,500 to 6,000 Hz, much higher than vowel sounds that come in at 250 to 1,000 HZ.

Most people who experience hearing loss have trouble discerning sounds at high frequencies, even if those sounds are loud enough. These sounds are distorted by problems such as inner ear damage. The issue is even worse when there is background noise, such as conversation at the dinner table or a crowded restaurant.

Low frequency hearing loss is much less common, but it does happen. People with low frequency hearing loss may not need treatment at all, but they may also struggle to hear in noisy situations.

What Exactly Is Robotics?

When you think of robots, you may think of TV shows, movies or book characters, but in fact robots are a much more common part of our everyday lives. Robots build cars and other products in factories, and they are used to explore areas of the sea or space where humans can’t go. Developing and improving robots has become critical to our way of life.

Robots have controllers that basically function like a brain, and they have mechanical parts that help them move. Robots also have sensors that tell it what is going on. Sensors measure things like pressure and temperature so the robot can make adjustments. New research in robotics has led to the development of a sensor that can make out the frequencies of sounds.

The Research

Social robotics is an area of the field in which researchers try to improve the way that humans and robots interact. Ideally, they could just talk to each other. One of the challenges of course, is building what are essentially hearing aids for a robot that can make out human speech.

Researchers in China attacked that problem by creating a sensor that can tell robots the frequencies of the sounds around them. It only makes sense that if humans need to hear and make out sounds at different frequencies to understand speech, then so do the robots. The sensor these scientists developed was able to identify the frequency levels of sounds from between 100 and 5,000 Hz. This is an astounding breakthrough, as most human speech falls within that range.

Once this technology is tested further, it is completely within the realm of possibility that it can be applied to hearing aids. If a hearing aid had a sensor that could identify the frequency of sounds, it could be tailored to fit the specific needs of the wearer by changing those frequencies to a level that is understandable. This would be a game-changer when it comes to the quality of hearing aids and the quality of people’s lives.

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