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A look at how the company uses AI to improve hearing aids, what inspired the company, and more
Innovation seems to come from every direction, but often it is focused on big-picture stuff - transportation, blockchain, the Internet of Things, the list goes on. But it’s important to remember that many of these new technologies trickle down into everyday products that are utilized by a variety of people.
This includes machine learning and artificial intelligence. These fields continue to show their importance in big picture things like self-driving cars and security, but they can be used to improve the lives of individuals as well with something that hasn't seen nearly as many improvements.
Whisper is one such company leveraging such a powerful technology and implementing it in a product that looks to improve the lives of many people around the world. The product? Smart hearing aids that use artificial intelligence to improve the more they are used.
I had the chance to interview Dwight Crow, co-founder and CEO of the company, to learn a bit more about the product, how it works, and what inspired the creation of the company. You can read the full interview below.
Care to introduce yourself and your role with Whisper?
I’m co-founder and CEO of Whisper, which is a team of artificial intelligence, hearing care, and hardware experts transforming the solutions available for those with hearing loss. We recently launched the Whisper Hearing System, a learning hearing aid that gets better over time. Unlike other hearing aids which have the same capabilities for 6-7 years until replaced, the Whisper System fundamentally rethinks hearing aid design to use AI and 1000x the compute of competitive devices to keep getting better over time.
Prior to Whisper I was one of the first 30 engineers at Arista Networks for a $15BB IPO, and sold my last AI company to Facebook and then ran the e-Commerce team there for a few years. Whisper is an incredible mission to be on. The ability to reopen one of the five human senses for hundreds of millions of people is the most exciting work I’ve been able to do.
What inspired the creation of the company and how long have you been in business?
My dad has hearing loss. It’s what you’d call hidden hearing loss, where he can hear decently in normal situations, but really struggles in loud settings with lots of background noise. We were sitting in a noisy cafe when he asked if we could move to a quieter section so he could be part of the conversation - he couldn’t hear over the background noise. I realized how the AI I'd been building for ad ranking could help my dad hear just the voices he wanted to, and that solving the problem of hearing meant something to me - and was the most important thing I could work on right now. I came together with Shlomo Zippel and Andrew Song to build Whisper shortly thereafter.
We’ve been a company for a little over three years now. The more we’ve dug in, the more important this mission feels. There’s such a huge opportunity to funnel the latest advances in AI, hardware, and software from Silicon Valley into improving how people hear and connect with their world and loved ones.
In just a couple of sentences, what sets you apart from other hearing aid manufacturers?
Whisper has fundamentally reimagined the hearing aid. The Whisper Hearing System is a learning hearing aid that improves over time. Unlike other hearing aids where you purchase the product and it has the same capabilities for the 6-7 years until you replace it, the Whisper Hearing System gets better and better over time.
Whisper is able to do this because the system is set up to learn through both software and powerful hardware. The hardware uses cell-phone level processors, and the software is built on our proprietary AI model. We developed the AI model from scratch using all combinations of voices, ages, and sound environments. Consumers will have the advantage of this proprietary AI model from day one to optimize sounds in real-time. Then every few months, we’ll upgrade our sound processing capabilities or add new features.
Because of this, we are selling the system via a simple monthly plan that includes these software upgrades, the Whisper Hearing System, and care from an expert group of hearing care professionals.
What is the Sound Separation System and how does it work?
Day to day, the Whisper Hearing System is powered by its proprietary Sound Separation Engine that uses artificial intelligence algorithms to optimize sound in real-time for a consumer’s surroundings. The Sound Separation Engine is the AI at the core of our system. We developed the AI model from scratch using all combinations of voices, ages, and sound environments. Consumers will have the advantage of this proprietary AI model from day one to optimize sounds in real-time. Then every few months, we’ll upgrade our sound processing capabilities or add new features.
There's a monthly plan - that seems a bit unique for a company that makes hearing aids, care to explain?
One of the challenges in the hearing aid category currently is that hearing aids have traditionally required a large upfront purchase anywhere from $3000 to $8000. That’s a lot to spend at once. With Whisper, consumers can choose instead to subscribe to a comprehensive monthly plan that includes a lease of the Whisper Hearing System, ongoing care from a local hearing care professional, regular software upgrades, and a 3-year warranty.
The cost will be $179 per month. At launch, we are offering an introductory price of $139/month. At the end of 3 years, patients can easily renew and receive new hardware. Along the way, they will get a hearing aid that gets better via software upgrades and the personalized care of their local audiologist.
You say you push software updates to improve the hearing system, what goes into that and how do you use data to improve the system?
The Whisper Hearing System is a new kind of hearing aid that gets better over time. This improvement is driven by regular software upgrades which keep consumers and hearing care professionals up to date with the latest technological advances. We’ve designed our system from the ground up to enable our team to funnel new features and AI improvements into a constantly improving hearing device - much like Teslas keep getting better compared to other cars.
Privacy has to be at the center of any product which is so personal, and Whisper never collects any raw audio from our users. As users take the Whisper Hearing System out in the world, it is collecting sound statistics that add up to millions of data points that can help advance the performance of our system for every patient. Our proprietary AI model is learning from this, and then engineers create software upgrades that can include new features for your system or improvements to our Sound Separation Engine.
Anything new coming to Whisper in the coming months?
Our first upgrade is rapidly approaching! We haven’t announced the details yet so I can’t share more now, but it’s a tremendous moment for us and we already have many consumers excited that their system is going to improve and grow with them.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions, anything you'd like to close with?
I’d just want to emphasize that the story of Whisper is a team effort, and the individuals that have come together to work on this mission have blown me away. We’ve got one of the original electrical engineers that designed the AirPods, the head of audio machine learning from Nest the Learning Thermostat, folks from Google Brain, the best engineers from traditional hearing aid companies, and some of the best commercial and operational professionals I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
It’s inspiring to see a team this small and dedicated able to build something that’s already helping so many people - we recently had a son start crying when he was telling us how much Whisper helped his father. There’s still so much left to do, but it all feels worth it when we see that we can really change lives with this technology.
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