When Lloyd Watts was growing up in Kingston, Ont., in the 1970s he had a knack for listening to songs by Billy Joel and Elton John and plunking out the melodies on the family piano. But he wondered, wouldn’t it be great to have a machine that could “listen” to songs and immediately transcribe them into musical notation? Watts never built the gizmo, but his decades-long quest to engineer such a machine has finally resulted in one of the first commercial technologies based on the biology of the brain.
Microchips designed by Audience, the Silicon Valley company Watts launched, are now being used by mobile handset makers in Asia to improve dramatically the quality of conversations in noisy places. Even a truck passing right by someone using the technology won’t be heard at the other end of the phone line. The chip is modeled on functions of the inner ear and part of the cerebral cortex. “We have reverse-engineered this piece of the brain,” declares Watts.