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Could AirPods double as hearing aids? Apple might be looking into it

The tech giant is reportedly studying to see if its wireless earbuds can be offered as hearing aids that also read temperatures.

Apple has been studying ways to make its AirPods into a health device that helps with body posture, detects temperature, and aids in hearing, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The move might encourage people, who would otherwise be deterred by the size or intrusiveness of hearing aids, to use them, said Dr. Nicholas Reed of the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health. In India, an estimated 63 million people suffer from significant hearing loss according to data from the World Health Organisation.

Details of the project

It is not sure whether Apple is planning to use the information from the study to incorporate hearing aid-like features in existing AirPods or release a new version of AirPods as hearing aids, the WSJ reported.

Currently, there are several Apple-compatible hearing aids and cochlear implants. Companies have attempted to add phone calling and music streaming to such made-for-iPhone hearing aids, according to 9to5 Mac. How it works is: the iPhone’s microphone is integrated with the implant or hearing aid.

Regulatory hurdles

Beyond research, development, and product design, Apple also faces regulatory hurdles in the US where current rules by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only allow ‘licensed medical practitioners’ to prescribe hearing aids. But news reports suggest that the FDA is looking to relax those provisions and allow over-the-counter sale of hearing aids; although, it did miss a deadline last year.

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Audio-device maker Bose has already received FDA clearance for its over-the-counter SoundConrol Hearing Aids which are being sold in a few states in the US.

Could it lead to passive data collection?

Cautioning against the discreet collection of data by gadgets, Mark Andrejevic, a professor at Monash University, said:

When this takes place, when these sensor systems become interfaces, a couple of things that I think are really important take place, one of them is what we might call silent or passive data collection where we don’t even realize that this data collection is happening. The other is that […] the distinction between identification and inference becomes blurred. Systems that may be used for identification can also be doubled for inferential purposes.

Professor Andrejevic made these remarks during PrivacyNama 2021, a global conference on privacy regulations held by MediaNama on October 6 and 7. “All of this kind of inferential use, which seems quite, I don’t know, far-fetched and an attempt to resuscitate long-debunked ways of thinking about how our bodies work, are being explored and built into these systems,” he added.

Meanwhile, Apple has been expanding to health-tech with new device features like ‘conversation boost’ that enhances ambient sounds for listeners and a plan to track the mental health of its users through the iPhone. For the latter, Apple said that the algorithms would work on users’ devices and wouldn’t send the data to Apple servers. 

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Written By

I cover health technology for MediaNama, among other things. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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