Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger, Accessibility Chief Darryl Adams Talks Building Hearing Health Tech and More in Interview


Most people don’t associate Intel with accessibility. They should.

Commemorating Global Accessibility Awareness Day this week, the Santa Clara-based chipmaker behemoth announced an initiative in which they are using technology to make hearing aids more accessible to everyone. In a press release, Intel said it is partnering with nonprofit startup 3DP4ME to provide 3D-printed, customized hearing aids to children in Jordan, where a pilot program is currently being run. Intel notes that in the United States, and in many places around the world, hearing aids are too expensive. “The application of 3D printing increases access to hearing aids because it is faster and less expensive than traditional manufacturing methods,” Intel wrote.

The joint venture with 3DP4ME is the latest in what Intel describes as “several” ongoing projects happening internally in a collaborative effort to “increase access to assistive devices and improve their integration with other technologies.” The ultimate goal, according to Intel, is to “allow this capability to reach thousands of people in need – and, ultimately, democratize hearing solutions around the world.”

“Earlier work to provide children with hearing aids involved making the custom ear molds by hand. It was a labor-intensive craft, and you could only make four or five hearing aids a day,” 3DP4ME founder Jason Szolomayer said in the release . “There were long waiting times even after the children were tested. Using 3D printing allows us to scale up the service we provide to families and children who need hearing aids.

In addition to the 3D printed hearing aids, Intel also highlighted progress being made in improving the connection of hearing aids with computers, as well as gains made in improving audio fidelity.

Darryl Adams, Intel’s director of accessibility, told me in an interview prior to the announcement that the company is “well positioned to work with our industry partners to design future technologies that are more accessible to more people.” With more than 19,000 software developers at its disposal, Intel has the resources, he said, to “play an instrumental role in enabling a more accessible experience” for developers and the open source ecosystem. He added that 3DP4ME is part of Intel’s so-called Intel RISE Technology Initiative, which he described as a program that allows company employees to submit project ideas in collaboration with Intel partners to advance issues of social equality and human rights. “Some of the most compelling projects funded by (Intel RISE) support diverse communities and reinforce our goal of supporting social equity and innovation,” Adams said of the program. “As a company that designs and builds world-leading technology, accessible, inclusive technology is what Intel can bring to the world to make it a better place.”

As with so many who work in the accessibility space, the mission is deeply personal to Adams. He was diagnosed at 14 with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that he says has “gradually diminished” his vision over time. In addition, he had a surgical accident at college which left him completely deaf in one ear.

“My mission (working at Intel) is to help make computing and access to digital information more accessible to everyone and to make Intel an employer of choice for employees with disabilities,” he said.

Such resonance also applies to Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger.

In an interview at the same time with Adams, he explained that his family has a history of hearing loss. His father was completely deaf when he died, and now Gelsinger sees himself “carrying on the family tradition” by wearing hearing aids. He told me he feels his hearing aids are “advancing digitally”; one of his favorite sounds in the world, he said, is hearing his grandson call him “Papa.” That technology has enabled Gelsinger to hear that, as his wife’s voice, makes him deeply appreciative of not only the profound potential of technology to do good by humanity – but for Intel’s steadfast commitment to promulgate it.

“If it wasn’t for technologies like (hearing aids), I might not be able to hear,” he said. “At Intel, we create world-changing technology that improves the lives of every person on the planet. I see my hearing aids as a great example of what happens when we live out our mission.”

When pressed on the aforementioned notion that Intel’s work on accessibility is relatively obscure given its large presence in the industry, Gelsinger said that his North Star ensures that “the lives of each person on the planet” affected in some way by his company’s technologies. He went on to say that technology has enormous potential to “unlock all kinds of powerful new possibilities” that include accessibility. To give just one example name, artificial intelligence, he said, “we can put the ‘personal’ back into personal computers.”

“The whole world is becoming digital, as technology is increasingly central to every aspect of human existence. In this digital age, we will witness the true magic of technology. We can push forward with innovation, discovery and growth with the help of of the ‘tech superpowers’ I often talk about,” Gelsinger said. “If Moore’s Law continues, computing performance will continue to scale exponentially. The next decade will see leaps in computing capabilities that enable entirely new experiences. If we are intentional about inclusion and accessibility, we can create a future where tech is for everyone works.

Adams is bullish on the evolution of hearing health technology.

“Accessibility is at the heart of inclusive design,” he said of the possibilities of the future. “We’re on a journey to get all user experience teams at Intel to adopt inclusive design and research practices, along with building the operational support for these inclusive practices. The key question we’re asking is ‘Who can we exclude?’ ‘ and we ask it when research planning, when writing requirements, and even when we look at the composition of our teams. When we are intentional about accessibility and include people with disabilities as early as possible in the product design life, we create better products and services for everyone.”

Intel’s relentlessness in the accessibility realm has not gone unnoticed internally. Adams told me that feedback on this week’s announcement, and all others regarding accessibility, is always “very positive.” He added that Intel is making “a concerted effort” to include the perspective of employees when starting these projects — particularly with the Intel Disability and Accessibility Network’s resource group for employees with disabilities.

Gelsinger also likes to give his input, sitting on top of the highest perch.

“I love testing our latest technologies—especially at our Intel On events, like Vision and Innovation, he said. “It’s such a blessing to hear firsthand how these technologies come to life around the change the world.”

More info on Intel accessibility can be seen on its accessibility page.

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