Hearing Aid Wearers: The Original Cyborgs


Hearing Aid Wearers: The Original Cyborgs

As automation and new technology continue to propel us forward, many people are wary of the potential for a robot revolution that would take our jobs and make humans obsolete. While that possibility might not seem as farfetched as it once did, it is still unlikely to happen anytime soon. But a different kind of revolution is taking place right now—a growing number of cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs, are already living and working among us. Cyborgs have long been a fixture in science fiction, with well-known cyborg characters introduced through movies (Star Wars’ Darth Vader), TV (Star Trek’s Borg), and comic books (Marvel’s Cable and DC’s Cyborg). No longer limited to pop culture, life is imitating art, with more people enhancing their bodies’ natural abilities with technological devices. From antennas that enable the colorblind to see color to bionic limbs that can sense their user’s intentions, there are many examples of people using man-made components along with their own flesh and bones. While this may seem new and unprecedented, the truth is that people have been incorporating technology into their bodies for decades to overcome physical challenges and enhance their natural abilities. Arguably, this cyborg revolution started with hearing aids.

Why hearing aid wearers are cyborgs

Are hearing aid wearers really cyborgs? After all, they don’t look like the half-metal, wired-together characters we see in pop culture. Moreover, their cybernetic components aren’t nearly as extreme as some other, more recent real-life examples. According to Dictionary.com, the term cyborg is defined as “a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.” So, how do hearing aid wearers fit this description? For one thing, hearing aids are smart devices that work with their wearers to compensate for hearing loss. In many cases, hearing loss is sensorineural in nature, meaning it is caused by damage to the cochlea or the nerves in the inner ear, resulting from factors like illness, aging, or family history. Since such damage typically can’t be corrected by medical or surgical intervention, hearing aids let wearers hear what they might otherwise miss. And hearing aids do more than amplify sound. They are smart devices that work with their wearers to automatically adjust volume, settings, and overall functionality to the different listening situations. They can even connect with the motion sensor technology of the wearer’s smartphone to accommodate adverse or challenging acoustic environments to provide an enhanced listening experience. Indeed, it is this ability to work with the individual, compensate for impaired ability, and respond intuitively to external conditions that makes hearing aid wearers true cyborgs, rather than just humans using assistive tools. And with the World Health Organization predicting that 1.1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss, the number of people who become cyborgs through hearing aids will only increase in the coming years.

How hearing aids enhance life

The appeal of being a cyborg for many is the ability to use machinery to augment their body’s own functions, and in many cases, surpass the limit of human potential. After all, high-end hearing aids don’t just help people hear everything equally louder. In situations those with normal hearing also find challenging (e.g., noisy restaurants or crowded parties), hearing aids with advanced binaural beam-forming technology can narrow down directionality to provide clear speech understanding in even the noisiest situations. As a result, hearing aids can reduce background interference like clattering silverware, loud music, or conversation from other tables while identifying and amplifying a speaker’s voice at the wearer’s table. This intelligent analysis of what you do and don’t want to hear effectively may even provide you with better than normal hearing. Here are a just a few more enhancements hearing aids offer wearers:
  1. Connect to other devices
At a time when all the tools we use in our daily lives are more symbiotic than ever, people with hearing aids can be just as connected. Modern hearing aids can connect to their wearer’s smartphone, unlocking new possibilities in how they hear and manage their listening experiences. Rather than relying on the audio from the phone’s receiver, hearing aids can stream the call directly into the wearer’s ears, in stereo, for greater clarity and easier comprehension. This also works when watching TV or listening to music—sound is streamed directly and binaurally at the perfect volume, giving hearing aid wearers an enhanced listening experience over those with normal hearing. And the world is already adapting to this reality. Many public places, such as theaters, museums, and houses of worship, provide induction loop functionality that enables hearing aid wearers to tap into audio and stream it directly into their hearing aids without having to strain like non-wearers to hear clearly over noisy crowds or from a distance.
  1. Transform how sound is detected
Our two ears typically work together to process sound. This binaural processing is what helps us determine the direction of sound and separates speech from other noises. However, hearing loss diminishes that ability. Even those with normal hearing may strain or must concentrate to hear a conversation partner in noisy environments. Meanwhile, hearing aids enable users to effortlessly focus on what they want to hear, using powerful microphones to determine the sources of speech and reduce sounds coming from other directions. The result is an enhanced ability to determine directionality, essentially scanning the landscape for sounds better than human ears can on their own. It also helps wearers maintain spatial awareness for greater safety, even while in motion (e.g., hearing a car coming from behind you).
  1. Learn from experience
While the ability for robots to learn on their own might just be cause for fear, this functionality only improves the listening experience for hearing aid wearers. Smart hearing aids can automatically determine the type of surroundings their wearers are in and change settings to ensure superior listening from one environment to the next. Using acoustic, motion, and voice detection capabilities, hearing aids can replicate and even exceed an individual’s natural hearing behavior, and remember the best settings for optimal listening.
  1. Detect the wearer’s own voice
Along with learning their preferences, advanced hearing aids can detect the sound path of their wearer’s own voice and, via dual processing of the voice and the remaining soundscape. Through powerful beam-forming technology, a precise scanning beam from the hearing aids detects the path of the user’s own voice, processing it separately from all other sounds. The result is a natural sounding own voice, without having to sacrifice enhanced sound quality.
  1. Be adjusted remotely
The key to being a successful cyborg is for both organic and mechanical parts to remain in proper working order. If hearing aids aren’t functioning as they should, their wearer might reject them. Fortunately, today’s hearing aids can be adjusted and fine-tuned remotely through an app. Such apps enable a hearing care professional to assess how well the user is doing with their hearing aids, uncover any potential issues, and fix them remotely. With refinements that can be implemented by someone miles away, the ability to fine-tune hearing performance from anywhere shows what is possible with cyborg technology.

Hearing aids: linking people and technology

Hearing aids help people with hearing loss live an enhanced life, with sometimes better than normal hearing and a high level of connectivity. Just like the cyborgs of pop culture, in which the various enhancements are a natural extension of the organic body, the more the wearer uses hearing aids, the more those devices become a part of them. As we continue to develop new devices that compensate for impairments, hearing aid wearers will be joined by many other people whose bodies are enhanced by machines. While being a cyborg may be the next step in evolution for humankind, it’s clear that hearing aid wearers already have a head start, demonstrating just how much can be achieved by linking people and technology.   Navid Taghvaei, Au.D. Dr. Navid Taghvaei is an Educational Specialist with Sivantos, Inc. He is responsible for conducting very complex individual and group technical training courses and activities involving new and existing developments in the areas of audiology, products, software, and technology for employees and customers. He demonstrates multi-system products by preparing and conducting clinician training, supports clinical product offerings, and performs in-house clinical trials for the Audiology Department team. He has extensive clinical experience in pediatric and adult hearing instrument and cochlear implant fitting, programming, and rehabilitation. He has served as a practicing Clinical Director of Audiology in multiple multi-disciplinary otolaryngology and audiology clinics in the U.S. and internationally. Navid received his doctorate in Audiology and master’s degree in Hearing Science from the University of Louisville School of Medicine and his bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Psychology from Arizona State University. He has also served as a lecturer and Clinical Preceptor at both universities for audiology and psychology courses. < News Archive