Stephen Hawking and the Technology that allowed him to continue his research

Stephen Hawking, who sought to explain the origins of the universe, the mysteries of black holes and the prospect of time travel, died today aged 76.  Hawkings body was ravaged by the wasting motor neurone disease (ALS) he developed age 21 and spent most of his life confined to his wheelchair.

Hawking’s incredible mind probed the very limits of human understanding both in the vastness of space and in the sub-molecular world of quantum theory, which he claimed could predict what happens at the beginning and end of time.

In his 2013 memoir  “My Brief History” he explained how at first he “felt it was very unfair” and often questioned “why should this happen to me.”  With time and technology he went from concern that his life was over and his potential never realised to now, 50 years later, feeling quietly satisfied with his life and achievements.

How Intel gave Hawking his voice

In 1986, aged 44, Hawkings lost his voice to save his life after an attack of pneumonia.   For a while, he used a spelling card to communicate, patiently indicating letters and forming words by raising his eyebrows.  Although this gave Hawkings the ability to communicate the process was slow.   From then on, he spoke through a computer synthesiser on the arm of his wheelchair.

A chance encounter with Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, at a conference in 1997 led to a relationship that would see Intel providing Hawkings with customised PCs and technical support, replacing his computer every 2 years.

Martin King, a physicist who had been working with Hawking on a new communication system, contacted a California-based company called Words Plus, whose computer program Equalizer allowed the user to select words and commands on a computer using a hand clicker.  Words Plus CEO Walter Woltosz had created a earlier version of the speech equalizer to her help his mother-in-law who also suffered from ALS.

Equalizer first ran on an Apple II computer linked to a speech synthesizer made by a company called Speech Plus. This system was then adapted by David Mason, the engineer husband of one of Hawking’s nurses, to a portable system that could be mounted on one of the arms of a wheelchair. With this new system, Hawking was able to communicate at a rate of 15 words per minute.

However, the nerve that allowed him to move his thumbs kept degrading. By 2008, Hawking’s hand was too weak to use the clicker. His graduate assistant at the time then devised a switching device called the “cheek switch.” Attached to his glasses, it could detect, via a low infrared beam, when Hawking tensed his cheek muscle. Since then, Hawking has achieved the feat of writing emails, browsing the internet, writing books and speaking using only one muscle.    Although this system worked it was still slow… enter SwiftKey.  With SwiftKey integrated, the system could learn from Hawking and predict the characters and words he planned to type next based on historical patterns, with this data funnelled through to his speech synthesizer. SwiftKey has also tapped Hawking’s historical works to help it more accurately predict his next words in this bespoke version of the software.

Many technologies combined to allow Hawking to communicate;

  • Lenovo Yoga 260 provided by Lenovo and Intel, Intel® Core™ i7-6600U CPU
  • 512GB Solid-State Drive
  • Windows 10
  • ACAT interface software provided by Intel

Speech Synthesizers (3 copies):

  • Manufacturer – Speech Plus (Incorporated 1988, Mountain View, CA)
  • Model – CallText 5010
  • Speaker and amplifier provided by Sound Research
  • Permobil F3 wheelchair provided by Permobil

It is undoubtedly the incredible technology that enabled Hawking to speak again that gave him the hope and drive to continue with his work.  Hawking was an Ambassador of Science and showed us what determination looks like.

 

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