Sept 2020 Pandaily

tencentChinese internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. teamed up with research associations and launched an AI initiative to help the hearing impaired

The Tianlai Initiative, which means beautiful voice, applies AI noise reduction technology to cochlear implants to help the hearing impaired hear more clearly in loud situations. The initiative is also open to public welfare developers, equipment manufacturers, and nongovernmental organizations. Tong Taosang, senior executive vice president of Tencent, said that cochlear implants with Tianlai technology can increase the clarity of speech by 40%. Tianlai, a new generation of real-time audio technology, has helped solve various challenges in real-time audio and video conference scenarios by embedding itself into online conferences, Tang added.

When talking about the reason for the combination of Tianlai and cochlear implant products, Tang said that in many meetings with hearing impaired people, he learned that some of them had paid high prices to install cochlear implants, but they still cannot hear clearly in relatively noisy public environments such as airports and shopping malls.

Tang’s team then came up with the idea of improving the hearing experience of this group through AI algorithms, and cooperated with one of the largest cochlear implant manufacturers in China – Nurotron. The two sides finally came up with solution of combining a mobile phone companion with a cochlear implant. According to Nurotron’s test data, he speech recognition performance is greatly improved after the combination of Tianlai, with an average recognition rate of 96.28%, with the recognition rate of voices in noisy environments reaching 94.24%.  There’s no third-party results provided for the test. 

“I’m happy to see the technology innovation brings good news to the hearing impaired,” said Li Zhansheng who works for China Hearing Impaired Group, the biggest resources site for people with hearing disabilities.  “China’s audio technology processing often relies on foreign products. Tencent’s technology is a leap forward and a contribution to audio processing technology,” Li said. “It will have great application prospects.”

Pu Qiangling, co-founder of the Shanghai-based hearing device company Sonitus Medical, said that in the domestic cochlear implants industry, Chinese made equipment accounts for only 5% of the total market share, YiCai reported. “This is an area that needs attention and investment in the domestic medical community, business community, and equipment capital.” 

The biggest cochlear implant brands which account for most domestic market shares are from Austria, Australia and the US, said Hong Li, who owns a hearing impaired recovery company.  

Hong said that cochlear implants have a noise reduction system and he feels like it’s “enough”, and he doesn’t know how Tencent’s technology can help. “The system should change the kernel part of the equipment, not overlay.”

According to the World Health Organization, some 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss and 360 million people have moderate to profound hearing loss worldwide.

In China, the second national sample survey of people with disabilities shows that there are 27.8 million hearing impaired people, and the number of new hearing impaired children continues to increase at a rate of 20,000 to 30,000 per year.

Due to costs and weak service capabilities, only 10% of hearing impaired people in developed countries have cochlear implants, and the number is even fewer in developing countries. Even those with cochlear implants, due to the complexity of noise and technology, the number of people actually benefitting from them is even lower, according to Hou Yisha, chairman of Shenzhen Disabled People’s Federation.

Zhao Yu, chief physician of Otorhinolaryngology at West China Hospital of Sichuan University, wrote that in developed countries, 60% of cochlear implant patients are elderly, while 90% in China are children, and less than 10% are adults and elderly people.  Tang said that new technologies such as the internet, smart phones, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and big data allow people to see, hear and think of more of the world. But there are some special groups, such as the disabled, who are often overlooked and fail to fully enjoy the convenience brought by technology.  “Technology companies are paying attention to using technology to help people with disabilities break through life’s barriers.”

Hou said she hoped that Tencent’s Tianlai initiative can be “integrated into thousands of households in Shenzhen, helping eliminate all tangible and intangible obstacles in every corner of the city.”

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