Tue. Mar 3rd, 2020

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Predicting the Future with AI and Sound, Starting With Robots in Space

We’ve all seen this moment in the movies—on board, say, a submarine or a spaceship, the chief engineer will suddenly cock their ear to listen to the background hum and say “something’s wrong.” Bosch is hoping to teach a computer how to do that trick in real life, and is going all the way to the International Space Station to test its technology.

Considering the amount of data that’s communicated through non-speech sound, humans do a remarkably poor job of leveraging sound information. We’re very good at reacting to sounds (especially new or loud sounds) over relatively short timescales, but beyond that, our brains are great at just classifying most ongoing sounds as “background” and ignoring them. Computers, which have both the patience we generally lack, seem like they’d be much better at this, but the focus of most developers has been on discrete sound events (like smart home devices detecting smoke alarms or breaking glass) rather than longer term sound patterns.

Why should those of us who aren’t movie characters care about how patterns of sound change over time? The simple reason is because our everyday lives are full of machines that both make a lot of noise and tend to break expensively from time to time. Right now, I’m listening to my washing machine, which makes some weird noises. I don’t have a very good idea of whether those weird noises are normal weird noises, and more to the point, I have an even worse idea whether it was making the same weird noises the last time I ran it. Knowing whether a machine is making weirder noises than it used to be, could potentially clue me in to an emerging problem, one that I could solve through cheap preventative maintenance rather than an expensive repair later on.

Bosch, the German company that almost certainly makes a significant percentage of the parts in your car as well as appliances, power tools, industrial systems, and a whole bunch of other stuff, is trying to figure out how they can use deep learning to identify and track the noises that machines make over time. The idea is to be able to identify subtle changes in sound to warn of pending problems before they happen. And one group of people very interesting in getting advanced warning of problems are the astronauts floating around in the orbiting bubble of life that is the ISS.