The scientific world has lost one of its modern day pioneers. Stephen Hawking, a modern cosmologist, passed away at age 76, on the 14th of March 2018. Hawking’s most notable work, “A Brief History of Time”, sold over ten million copies and he is remembered for his work on general relativity and black hole theories.
His impact on engineering is not lost either; Hawking popularized communication devices that aid those who are unable to speak. Hawking developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21 - a motor-neuron disease. After a bout of pneumonia, and due to the effects of ALS, doctors had to perform a tracheotomy on Hawking; he lost the ability to speak. The engineered technologies that gave him his voice back became wonders of biomedical engineering.
Hawking started out with a speech synthesizer called CallText 5010. It was run by an AMD processor.
He was eventually persuaded to utilize Intel’s technology after the CEO asked him if he wanted to use a ‘real computer’. Since then, Intel has mobilized the ‘Intel User Experience Engineers’ to regularly update Hawking’s communication system. It was Intel who provided Hawking with his distinct voice.
Engineer, David Mason helped fit Equalizer and Speech Plus software to Hawking’s wheelchair. The software was developed by a company known as Words Plus. The software needed a clicker pressed to articulate speech, but Hawking eventually lost the use of his hand. Thereafter an infrared sensor on his glasses was able to detect when he twitched his cheek muscle.
As Hawking’s condition deteriorated he found it increasingly difficult to type words efficiently; this limited his ability to communicate ideas and write books. In response Intel’s engineers tested a number of new methods, but seemed stumped.
Eventually predictive text entered our lexicon of terms and has become a feature on our smartphones. It involved a great deal of trial and error, but allowed Hawking’s communication to speed up. He used word predictors by popular keyboard app maker SwiftKey.
The technology was fleshed out and dubbed the Assistive Contextually Aware Toolkit. Hawking began to use shortcuts and menus that had some pre-predicted tools; it can cut down typing time by half.
Lama Nachman is an Intel Fellow and the Director of the Anticipatory Computing Lab at Intel Corporation. After his death she summed up the challenging biomedical engineering endeavors that were pioneered with and for him:
“Working with Stephen was the most meaningful and challenging endeavor of my life. It fed my soul and really hit home how technology can profoundly improve people’s lives. We will continue developing and refining this technology in the open source community in his honor, to reach all people in need. This is something he cared about deeply.”
Hawking had the option to change the sound emitted from his communication device, but he chose to keep his iconic, robotic voice. It became synonymous with the man; a man with an incredible brain, enormous courage and boundless determination.
Farrell, Nick. “Intel Remembers Giving Stephen Hawking His Voice.” Fudzilla, www.fudzilla.com/news/processors/45820-intel-remembers-giving-stephen-hawking-his-voice.