My mother began to lose her hearing while I was away at college. I would return home to share what I’d learned, and she would lean in to hear. Soon it became difficult for her to hold a conversation if more than one person spoke at a time. Now, even with a hearing aid, she struggles to distinguish the sounds of each voice. When my family visits for dinner, she still pleads with us to speak in turn.
My mother’s hardship reflects a classic problem for hearing aid manufacturers. The human auditory system can naturally pick out a voice in a crowded room, but creating a hearing aid that mimics that ability has stumped signal processing specialists, artificial intelligence experts, and audiologists for decades. British cognitive scientist Colin Cherry first dubbed this the “cocktail party problem” in 1953.