Can a machine learn to solve our speech in noise problem?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This piece in The Hearing Journal asks, “Can a Machine Learn to Solve our Speech in Noise Problem?”

Maybe yes, maybe no.

The “speech in noise” problem is the difficulty many people with hearing loss–and even people with normal hearing as tested by pure tone audiometry–have  following a conversation if the room (often a restaurant or party) is noisy.

I have that problem, as many adults do, and I also have three problems with this article.

First, talking about a technological solution to the speech in noise problem without discussing how we can interfere with the development of this condition by simply making the world quieter to prevent hearing loss is irresponsible. Imagine public health officials in the 1950s focusing on making better wheelchairs, braces, and crutches for those affected by polio without also working to prevent polio by developing a vaccine. You can’t, because that would have be absurd. To prevent noise-induced hearing loss, we don’t need more research. We don’t need a vaccine. All we need is to make a quieter world, something that has been known for decades.

Second, an even better solution to the speech in noise problem would be to require quieter indoor spaces.

Third, requiring quieter public spaces is exactly what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires. People with hearing loss clearly meet the ADA definition of having a disability, and they require “reasonable accommodations” to allow them to fully enjoy (yes, this is the legal standard in ADA) places open to the public. I will be speaking about “Disability Rights of Ambient Noise for People with Auditory Disabilities Under the Americans with Disabilities Act” at the December meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, in New Orleans. I recent learned that my talk will be broadcast live over the internet. Details of how to listen will be posted when they become available.

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