YOUR phone is listening to you. A program that runs in the background of your smartphone can digest and understand the sounds of the world around it. The information it gleans could inform the next generation of virtual assistants. It could also make search engines far more useful.

Neural networks – computer models that ape the complexity of the brain – dominate our online lives: Google Translate can whip English text into Russian, for example, while Facebook’s DeepFace can pick one face out of millions.

Now that power is moving offline. Nic Lane and colleagues at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, have built a listening neural network called DeepEar that runs on a phone without being connected to the internet.

The idea of continuous audio sensing isn’t new, but until now the algorithms haven’t worked well in a noisy environment. They were also too power hungry. Lane’s system uses about 6 per cent of a smartphone’s battery for a whole day of listening.

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