Waaa! Can We Now Understand What Baby Is Saying?

Do babies talk? No, not like the tot voiced by John Travolta in “Look Who’s Talking,” but real flesh-and-blood babies?

What if parents had a translator for baby language?

Baby Cry Insights, a new app from startup Ubenwa Health, uses AI to tell parents what their baby’s cry means.

For now, Ubenwa says, the app can determine if a baby is in pain, hungry or just uncomfortable. In two months of beta testing, which attracted users from 150 countries, 45% of cries indicated pain.

Ubenwa calls Baby Cry Insights a “foundational step” to “establishing the infant cry as a vital sign for early detection of medical conditions.”

Other apps, such as Cry Analyzer from Japan and Baby Language from Denmark, also claim to interpret a baby’s cries, but Baby Cry Insights looks like the most scientifically researched of them.

Ubenwa, from Montreal, is a six-year-old spinoff from  Mila, a 30-year-old research institute founded and still run by Yoshua Bengio, a “godfather of AI.”

Pharma & Health Insider spoke with Florent Voumard, Ubenwa’s business operations lead, about the app’s development.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pharma & Health Insider: What’s the app’s target age range?

Florent Voumard: Newborns, mostly because after three to six months, parents tend to understand their babies better!

The flywheel effect of parents using our app and giving feedback means we will be able to much better understand cry evolution through age.

As we add new features, the target audience will grow to babies beyond six months old.

Pharma & Health Insider: How successful has the app been so far?

Voumard: The beta launch was available for anyone to use, but we never told anyone about it.

Parents are searching for ways to translate their baby’s cry, so we’re getting a lot of very organic search.

We’ve had over 4,000 parents download the app, and approximately half that – 2,300 – have successfully recorded cries. [editor’s note: all figures are as of the interview date, August 31]. We’ve had 10,000 cries recorded [an average of four cries per baby].

Pharma & Health Insider: How long has Baby Cry Insights been in development?

Voumard: The product itself for six months, but the underlying technology for over five years. It’s all based on multiple clinical studies done at hospitals

The clinical studies are not really aimed at translating a baby’s cries. Their main goal is to diagnose birth esphyxia in newborns, and this has been a byproduct. We were already recording babies and had metadata around why the baby is crying (e.g., “we just pricked that baby for blood”) -- so we started using it in a more “consumery” way.

Pharma & Health Insider: How detailed can the translation get? For instance, can you tell what kind of pain the baby has?

Voumard: For now, it’s only three categories: pain, discomfort (e.g., a diaper issue) and hunger.

We’re very keen to get as much feedback as possible to make the app better and better. We’re hoping to be able to say “we think the baby is in pain and it’s a bellyache,” based on age and the cry itself.

Pharma & Health Insider: How will Ubenwa monetize the technology?

Voumard: It’s really not our core focus right now. Right now, the app isentirely free. Parents don’t even have to log in.

We’re looking at turning the app into an AI parenting app, and we think there’s going to be room for specific premium features that parents can pay for if they find it valuable.

For example,parents often have to track things for pediatricians such as “when has my baby pooped?” in a very manual way. People are using apps, others are using paper.

We also think we’ll be able to help them predict [such things as] “when should I wake my baby up?”

Pharma & Health Insider: What else can we expect from Ubenwa?

Voumard: The app is D2C, but as a company, we’re very clinically focused. We’re looking at partnerships with manufacturers and hospitals. There’s an opportunity for products that help NICU staff quantify “How much was the baby crying”?, “Was there a lot of pain detected?”

Pharma & Health Insider: Can Ubenwa develop an app to translate what our cats and dogs are saying?

Voumard: That is probably the #1 asked question when we discuss the app. It’s going to be a lot harder to get labels around what the cat really wanted, so I think it is still a few years before we see anything like that.

Pharma & Health Insider: Is Ubenwa working on such a capability?

Voumard: Oh no, not at all! We’re focusing on babies.

We want parents and physicians to start thinking of a baby’s cry as a vital sign and try to understand what’s in it, because this is the first and the only way a newborn can communicate --and there’s a lot of knowledge within that cry that can be extracted.

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