This Week in Sound: Mice v. Deep Fakes + Hackers v. Smart Speakers + …

A lightly annotated clipping service

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the August 18, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

If you’re a whale, audio surveillance has your (hump)back: A system deployed in the Santa Barbara Channel “could capture whale calls as far as 30 miles away. Cables connected the listening station — about 600 feet below sea level — to a buoy floating on the surface.” The goal is to warn ships away from cetacean hangouts.

Mice may be the canaries in the deep-fake coal mine: “A research team is working on training mice to understand irregularities within speech, a task the animals can do with remarkable accuracy.” Bonus points for distinction drawn between “deep fakes” and “cheap fakes.” (via subtopes)

More mice news, this time relating to repairing human hearing: “Using genetic tools in mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine say they have identified a pair of proteins that precisely control when sound-detecting cells, known as hair cells, are born in the mammalian inner ear. The proteins, described in a report published June 12 in eLife, may hold a key to future therapies to restore hearing in people with irreversible deafness.” (via Tom Whitwell)

No one apparently wants to be left out of the recent speech-to-surveillance bingo matrix: Facebook reportedly “paid contractors to transcribe users’ audio chats.” Thus the service’s Messenger has joined Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s more anthropomorphism-neutral Assistant in sounding alarms about consumer voice privacy.

More positive news about voice recognition, from Google’s Project Euphonia: Euphonia is an “attempt to make speech recognition capable of understanding people with non-standard speaking voices or impediments. The company has just published a post and its paper explaining some of the AI work enabling the new capability.”

And a positive spin on deep fakes, as artistic pursuit: For some, the technique is a propaganda tool. “For others, this nascent technology holds great promise, offering realistic vocal models for people with speech impairments, more convincing voice assistants, intimate chatbots, and myriad uses in the entertainment industry. Motivated more by artistic interests than commercial applications, musicians in particular envision different possibilities for the future of human and machine collaboration.”

The room tone of the planet is hell on earth for some: Infrasound is sound at the floor of human perception, but some humans perceive better than others, sometimes to their detriment. “It’s like as if someone is driving needles through me. … It’s not a noise so much as you’re hearing with your ears, it’s a vibration,” says one sufferer.

The city of Malibu is exploring an outdoor public warning system for fires: “The city is asking consultants/consulting firms to identify the optimum placement of multiple sirens along the 21-mile length of the city that could be heard everywhere in an emergency and provide an overall detailed and comprehensive plan for an outdoor siren warning system.”

Your kitchen-counter smart speaker is being recruited as a weapon of sonic terror: “Matt Wixey, cybersecurity research lead at the technology consulting firm PWC UK, says that it’s surprisingly easy to write custom malware that can induce all sorts of embedded speakers to emit inaudible frequencies at high intensity, or blast out audible sounds at high volume. Those aural barrages can potentially harm human hearing, cause tinnitus, or even possibly have psychological effects.”

Movie theaters in Maryland are working to serve their hearing-impaired audiences: Via the Twitter of Sean Zdenek, who notes: “Hawaii is the only U.S. state with open captioning laws.”

Composer Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) agrees that people are using movie soundtracks to score their own lives: “It’s amazing to see just how many people are getting into the idea of listening to film scores, outside of just listening to a band’s album with 10 tracks. It’s because they want a new musical experience. It’s like reading a book, they want to be taken on a musical journey. It’s basically the modern classical.” (This via Jason Richardson, who made similar comments in his blog the week prior.)

In a surprise move, a horror-film director may have exaggerated scientific evidence, in this case of fish noises: The director of 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, Johannes Roberts, says of the movie’s screaming fish, “I wouldn’t want to necessarily swear to it, that that’s a very accurate thing that fish do.”

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