Apple's AirPods Conversation Awareness needs this AI upgrade: Noise-cancelling headphones use artificial intelligence to tune in the voice of whoever you're looking at

Noise isolating headphones
(Image credit: University of Washington)

AI should be a tool that enhances lives without replacing anything that needs the human touch — and given then that there’s no tiny person that lives inside your headphones (as far as we know) who decides what noises are allowed through its virtual noise gate, we’d say that AI is a pretty good fit here.

So too, apparently, do some very important and clever researchers at the University of Washington who’ve decided to put their impressive AI research chops to improving the noise canceling in your headphones.

Isolate the talker

There are already some very impressive noise-canceling systems out there that can isolate different noises so that you can hear the things you might want to and block out those that you don’t. The researchers have decided that the technology could be made better, however, thanks to a new not-so-secret ingredient — AI.

Using artificial intelligence, Popular Science tells us, the researchers are able to isolate a particular talker's voice in a noisy environment and block out the surrounding noise. That will leave you with only the conversation, without having to worry about what else is going on around you — and apparently, all you need do is look at the target of your conversation, and AI does the rest.

If this sounds like Apple’s Conversation Awareness feature that you find on the AirPods Pro 2, you wouldn’t be completely off base — although there are some main differences. Conversation Awareness will lower the volume of your media, turn off the noise canceling, and boost the sound of voices so that you can more easily have a conversation. This new innovation, however, will adjust the noise canceling directly, boosting the voice of the person you’re talking to, and blocking out the noise of everything that’s happening around you. Apple’s version also only kicks in when you start talking, rather than when you’re first spoken to. 

At the moment, there are some hiccups — the talker needs to be the loudest thing in the room, for example. The researchers are confident that they can overcome the issue, however, and also give some compelling reasons why it could be more than just a convenience when you want to make sure you can hear the bus driver when you want to buy your ticket.

For those hard of hearing, for example, this could be a game changer. If you struggle to isolate voices in crowds, then you’ll be able to tune in directly to the person you are trying to hear. The technology is, obviously, in its early stages right now — but the day we see it head to the best Bluetooth headphones could be somewhere in the future.

AirPods Pro 2 |$249$189 at Amazon

AirPods Pro 2 | $249 $189 at Amazon

They might not use AI to block out noise when you're having a conversation, but they pack in some quality noise canceling and sound quality for the price. This deal is not quite their lowest price ever, but it's still a solid deal on some very nice earbuds.

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Tammy Rogers
Senior Staff Writer

As iMore's Senior Staff writer, Tammy uses her background in audio and Masters in screenwriting to pen engaging product reviews and informative buying guides. The resident audiophile (or audio weirdo), she's got an eye for detail and a love of top-quality sound. Apple is her bread and butter, with attention on HomeKit and Apple iPhone and Mac hardware. You won't find her far away from a keyboard even outside of working at iMore – in her spare time, she spends her free time writing feature-length and TV screenplays. Also known to enjoy driving digital cars around virtual circuits, to varying degrees of success. Just don't ask her about AirPods Max - you probably won't like her answer.