A baby cry translator? A company uses machine learning to translate your infant

A.I. could help your babies finally get through to you.
Chris Young

Sometimes, a simple "wah" is enough. Other times, babies might need an extra hand communicating.

According to Switzerland and Barcelona-based startup Zoundream, that extra help can come in the form of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and a proprietary device that translates what they call the "universal language" of babies. 

"Every time a baby cries, they are asking for something," said Zoundream CEO Roberto Iannone in an interview with IE at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The company's idea stems from the principle that "babies cry more or less the same way for the same needs," he said.

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Zoundream collected thousands of hours of crying baby data

Though the words baby and artificial intelligence together might conjure thoughts of creepy sci-fi imagery, Iannone stressed the human element of Zoundream's work — their device, he explained, is by no means a replacement for that strong parental intuition. Instead, it acts as an aid that enhances the parent's own abilities.

"Our device is absolutely not made to replace the role of the parents in understanding their own babies," Iannone said. "It's actually a way to give them confidence, and to bring more attention to how the baby cries and what they need."

Zoundream used machine learning software to analyze thousands of hours of international baby cries. They then classified these cries into four different categories: hunger, pain, gas, and wants a hug. The company was co-founded by Iannone alongside data scientist Ana Laguna, who Iannone approached when he discovered she was collecting data on baby cries and defining patterns in these cries.

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"When we first started," Iannone explained, "we bought some cheap recorders and we asked some parents, and even paid some of them, to keep a recorder close to their baby." Though it was a very time-consuming manual process, he explained, it allowed them to kickstart their research. Then, "as soon as it became possible, we developed our own machine, which was essentially a recorder that filtered out all of the sounds that were not baby cries." This, he explained, was good for privacy, and also meant they no longer had to spend hours manually filtering the recording to verify whether they had picked up baby cries, or other sounds. "That really started giving us some data," Iannone explained.

A baby's "own language"

The company's CEO also highlighted the role of prosody for babies, which is essentially their ability to recognize and communicate via melodic intonations rather than speech. This is ingrained in them from their very early development, while they are in the womb. It is a baby's "own language," Iannone said, and it is central to the company’s research.

The next step for Zoundream will be taking its technology to the market, which Iannone told us it aims to do by the summer of this year. Firstly, the company will provide their devices to third parties in Europe and Asia via already established partnerships with organizations and brands. "Over the last three years, we’ve been giving free devices [called BabyT] that conduct cry detection and cry translation to whoever wants them," Iannone said. "They get it for free, they can keep it for as long as they want, and we keep the data for research purposes."

And what of baby data privacy? Are parents happy with Zoundream’s work so far? So far, "parents love the technology," the company's CEO told us, explaining that the reason why they use it differs depending on the parent's needs. "Generally speaking, it's not that [the parent] has no clue what the baby wants most of the time. Sometimes it is like that, particularly for [parents having] the first child. But in other situations, it's, 'I think I knew what the baby wanted, but I still like to get that confirmation.'"

"So it adds that reassurance. Because the first months are tough, they're really tough," Iannone said, explaining that he is a father himself, and he's been there.

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