Michael Kai Petersen

Senior Scientist in Augmented Hearing
Michael Kai Petersen was originally trained as a musician, but most of his career he has used his knowledge about sound as a sound engineer. Now he is dedicated to personalizing future hearings aids in order to contextually augment sounds for the user in every possible situation.

August 2018

How did you end up at Eriksholm Research Centre?

"I joined Eriksholm two years ago coming from a faculty position at DTU Compute. I finished my PhD from DTU Compute ten years ago and subsequently I have mostly been working with cognitive systems ranging from natural language understanding to mobile brain imaging. However, I was originally trained as a musician from The Royal Danish Academy of Music playing the saxophone. I have produced more than 100 classical CDs. After doing that, I wanted to do something else. And for that it was perfect to get a PhD. I had several start-up companies on my own for many years, but things started to get so technical that I needed a more solid background. When I got that at the university I also got attracted to the possibility of doing research there. So I stayed for a decade, which was fantastic in terms of prototyping new types of cognitive interfaces for other people."

Do you still see a connection between the music and what you do today?

"Yes, completely. When you produce music you try to create an experience. Ideally speaking, what we do here is not so different. In Augmented Hearing we want to give hearing impaired users the best possibility for social interaction with other people. It is fantastic to be able to work with something that makes a difference."

What made you interested in hearing care?

"I think hearing aids are amazing little devices. They are the next generation of wearables. In the future, it is not going to be just a hearing aid – what we are talking about here is really a cognitive interface that has access to large amounts of data that may be able to support you in lots of different ways."

What project or experience has been the most interesting for you while working here?

"I think a great thing about working here is that the research we do have far-reaching consequences that can be implemented quickly, because Oticon can turn it into a product. It is very satisfying to see an immediate impact from the research we do at Eriksholm.
I am very fond of the research we do now: We aim at personalizing the hearing aids by continuously learning from user-generated data collected in real life listening scenarios. Personalization is tremendously important because people are so different. Many hearing care solutions today still reflect the limitations of traditional clinical workflows. You give people a device, and if they come back some weeks later with complaints it can be very challenging for the hearing care professional to figure out what doesn’t work. If you rethink hearing care as a feedback loop facilitated by smartphones which enable the user to express their preferences, we will understand what works and what doesn’t in a particular listening scenario. That will create completely new possibilities for personalizing hearing care. We will be able to improve patient outcomes by making the hearing aids adapt to the needs of each individual.
There are so many things that affect the user experience, and the better we become at adapting to the user’s contextual preferences, the better products we will create. It is not just a product: it completely redefines life quality for many people."

What motivates you in your job?

"One of the things that strongly motivates me is the interaction with our test users. The immediate effect you see when people come back and say ‘This is wonderful. This really helps.’ That motivates me.
I am also motivated by our collaboration here at Eriksholm. It really takes a lot of very complementary skills to do what we are doing. All of us have very unique expert knowledge within a specific area. When we combine all these skills we can create results which will truly change the life of people."

What do you do in your spare time?

"I live by the sea, so going back and forth biking to Eriksholm is amazing. Every morning I go for a run along the coast. I love that the sky, the clouds, the water is different all the time.
I read a lot and I listen to music many, many hours every day. Using streaming apps you are provided with fantastic possibilities regarding music. You can not only experience live concerts with The Berlin Philharmonic but get to know the musicians through portraits and interviews. Likewise, you can watch performances at The Metropolitan Opera in New York without getting on a plane. So in the same evening you can virtually be in Berlin, then later at the Met in New York or the PROMS in London streamed live from the BBC3 app which I also enjoy tremendously. I absolutely admire the voices of the BBC3 presenters. I worked at DR broadcasting myself for a decade, so I appreciate when somebody in front of a microphone is capable of creating this atmosphere and share their enthusiasm so listeners feel like they are also part of the event."

What are the three most important values in your life and why?

"Being open and honest is absolutely fundamental. When people are being open with each other it creates possibilities to share stuff.

It also makes it easy to be spontaneous, which is another value of mine. You don’t need to plan everything in detail when you trust the people around you. That gives you a sense of flow. It gives you freedom to experience things as they evolve rather than attempting to control everything.

This also provides a foundation for empathy. People are very different. Empathy has to do with not just understanding but respecting how other people live their lives.
These aspects are also reflected in how I work because I rely very much on collaborating with other people. Having worked as a producer doing sound engineering you essentially conceptualize and realize things through other people. It really takes a lot of involvement, requiring you to be open and spontaneous in order to create things with people in the moment."

What do you think is the most exciting scientific breakthrough in your time?

"I think what we are experiencing with artificial intelligence right now is fundamentally going to change everything, not least how we do research. It is a total paradigm shift when we learn the behaviors from patterns in data instead of defining behaviors by writing lines of code. That a little piece of neural network code is able to beat the world champion in the game Go, by teaching itself how to play, is to me truly intelligent."

What do you hope will happen in future science?

"There is of course an ethical challenge to artificial intelligence. I hope that some of the problems that we have seen highlighted recently, with social media companies selling other people’s data, will be a wake-up call. Make it clear that people should own their data and decide for themselves when to share it and with whom.
Many of the huge challenges we experience in health care could be solved if we had access to shared data. It could dramatically reduce costs and make treatment affordable for a lot of people. Same thing with hearing health care. I hope we will be able to change hearing health care solutions, both by personalizing hearing aids and by sharing insights learned from thousands of other users. When all users are essentially connected through their devices you get amazing possibilities."

If you want to know more about Michael's work on personalizing hearing care read more here.

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