While ever-evolving AI has revolutionized the world of wearables, that awesome computing power has a drawback: a cloud connection is usually necessary for complex processing. But what if you could hold that amazing AI capability in the palm of your hand — or, in this case, in your ear? That’s what the startup Femtosense says it has delivered with its tiny AI processor that measures just 1.5 by 2.2 mm and draws less than 1 mW. It was unveiled at CES 2023 with a demonstration of audio applications that use the chip for speech enhancement and noise suppression in earbuds, hearing aids, and other devices. Though the AI processor’s potential uses are more far-reaching.

Femtosense CEO Sam Fok says, “We are already working with partners and customers to evaluate and develop products that enable unprecedented features for small-state battery-powered wearables down to home security, televisions and even audio in vehicles, all with AI that requires much less power for even greater efficiency.” How does the processor deliver AI functionality without the considerable power that’s commonly necessary? Its makers say they use “sparse mathematics” to cut out the unnecessary work, increasing the chip’s efficiency and decreasing the need for power.

And at a lower cost than today’s high-end AI applications, which until now have been mostly limited to niche areas including flagship phones and data centers. Fok says, “We now have what consumer electronics manufacturers have been asking for: real silicon they can test to build compelling, highly efficient and affordable applications that just haven’t been possible until now.” Moving AI processing power from the cloud into chips does seem the likely direction that consumer electronics and ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) are going, and Femtosense says it expects their processor to go into mass production this year.

The decision of Femtosense to first focus on wearables that enhance hearing brings a significant issue into sharp relief; according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 1 in 8 people in America aged 12 and older suffers from hearing loss in both ears. Around 15% of U.S. adults aged 18 and over report that they have some hearing trouble, and the NIH estimates that around 28.8 million adults in America could benefit from hearing aids. Then there’s the earbud market, which the marketing research firm Market Research Future predicts will top $32 billion in the U.S. by the year 2030. And, thanks to innovation from companies including Femtosense, those in-ear devices will be packing lots of AI power.