Baby talk


Not even a year ago, it was all so much simpler. You went where you wanted and did what you wanted. You went to sleep when you wanted. You woke up when you wanted - at least at weekends. 
Life was about making sure you kept yourself fed and clothed and sufficiently entertained and whilst even that was occasionally a challenge, you'd just about got the hang of it.
Of course you had a mortgage to pay and a job to turn up for but you also enjoyed outrageous levels of freedom – freedom to instantly reply to a friend's dinner party invite with “Yes”, or at least, “Probably - let me just check with that berk I married”. Freedom to wear nice clothes and know that the only reason they'd end up covered in puke is if that dinner party took a decadent turn. Freedom to float around your house without fear that a sneeze, creaking floorboard or ring of the doorbell would upend the hard-fought 40 minutes of peace into whose basket you'd put all your exhausted mental eggs. Freedom to do utterly crazy shit like drink from glasses, leave pointy cutlery out on tabletops, access your own staircase without a retinal scan and even HAVE EXPOSED CORNERS on furniture!!!???

But then not even a year ago, that berk you married brought home a bottle of wine one Sunday eve and you watched Poldark together and whilst he'd secretly wished it was Robot Wars and you not-so secretly wished he was Poldark, the cheap Pinot did its thing aaaaand.... you fucked him.

….9 ½ months later, the most amazing thing happens. As you lay there in a hospital bed, exhausted, sore and elated, having overcome the most incredible ordeal, you watch him cradling the new life you've created. His pride in you and the gift you've given him illuminates his face.... He's not such a berk after all. Granted he's no Poldark, but he didn't run away or faint or babble too much nonsense to the midwives while you were moving mountains and slaying dragons. He can't dance, he buys cheap wine and his jokes are crap but he'll be a fantastic father. The best ones always tell crap jokes. And then suddenly the bundle in his arms begins to wail and the perplexed look on his face as he quickly hands her back reminds you of a little boy who's just had his ice-cream-tub-on-wheels smashed to bits by Sir Killalot. In fairness, you're not quite sure why she's suddenly screaming either. Is she cold? Could be hungry? Possibly wet?... Wouldn't be Brexit already would it?... 

Welcome to early-years parenthood. The elation. The pride. The goddamn perpetual uncertainty! Whilst some parents take to it easier than others, all sorts of questions, doubts and anxieties arise from new arrivals, exacerbated by the obvious language barrier – you have language; they're still some way off.
However, researches from Northern Illinois University have just unveiled an A.I. algorithm capable of distinguishing common variations in any baby's cry, allowing us easier insight into just what ails them.
Whilst babies may not have language as such, experienced professionals (and now computers) are able to identify different markers in their distress calls, which is why they're professionals and we're half-mad, sleep deprived and developing a twitch. For example, hunger cries frequently invoke a “neh” sound, created as the sucking reflex pushes the baby's tongue to the roof of its mouth. Similarly, the “eh eh” sound commonly heard after a baby's feeds (or on a night out in Liverpool) means someone needs burping. The “shiiiit!” sound which generally follows means someone's just been covered in vom, again applicable to both newborns and nights out in Liverpool.     
Adapting a pre-existing speech recognition system, augmented with input from experienced neonatal nurses and caregivers and using a technique called compressed sensing, the algorithm analyses the waveforms of infant cries, recognising common features in volume, pitch and tone and discerning the likely cause. The compressed sensing process is able to reconstruct a signal based on scarce data, even in noisy environments, so an application of the technology could see babies exhibiting “abnormal” cries (those caused by underlying medical conditions or discomfort) treated more quickly in busy hospital or emergency environments, compared to those just seeking a bottle, boob or cuddle.   

The benefit to new parents is that so much of that early anxiety-inducing uncertainty could soon become a thing of the past. Mums and dads already frazzled by the new demands of parenthood are in many cases suffering in silence because they see their questions and concerns as too trivial for health visitors and doctors or fear appearing clueless in front of friends and family. 

Before too long, we can expect an app to discreetly give us a heads up as to why our little bundle of joy is currently emptying the restaurant and forcing people to smile in that forced way which says “Awww, bless you. I can see from your wild hair, four day old make-up and crazy eyes you're irredeemably nackered. You're clearly doing your best and to be honest, I wouldn't know what to do either beyond the singing and rocking and feeding and rattle-shaking you're already being publicly forced to perform while your food goes cold. Kudos to you for making it out, but can you please, please shut that FUCKING THING UP NOW ? Thaaaaaaanks.”
It remains to be seen whether an app can really take the tears out of the early years but who knows, perhaps if all else fails, you'll be able to just swipe left for adoption services....

By Ian Greenland