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How Intel Helped Stephen Hawking Communicate with the World

Dan Tynan
Yahoo Tech


Some physicists merely study the stars. Professor Stephen Hawking has become one.

More than 20 years ago, Hawking’s best-selling A Brief History of Time introduced the concepts of theoretical astrophysics to the masses. Hawking, the director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology in Cambridge, is now the subject of a major motion picture (The Theory of Everything). He’s appeared on both Star Trek: The Next Generation (playing poker with Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Commander Data) and The Simpsons; he’s even offered up his services to play the next Bond villain.

Related: Stephen Hawking Thinks Artificial Intelligence Could Spell The End Of The Human Race

Hawking has achieved all this despite suffering from a degenerative motor neuron disease that has left him entirely dependent on technology to communicate with the rest of the world.

If anyone is deserving of a tech upgrade, it’s Hawking. And he’s finally gotten one, with a lot of help from Intel.

Today in London, Intel unveiled the new Assistive Context Aware Toolkit (ACAT), a system that speeds Hawking’s ability to operate a computer by a factor of 10, says Horst Haussecker, a senior principal engineer who oversees Intel’s Computational Imaging Lab.

Until recently, entering text or opening files was a painfully arduous process for the physicist. As his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) progressed, Hawking lost more and more control over the muscles in his body. He can now only raise or lower his eyebrows to indicate yes or no, and must operate a computer via an infrared sensor attached to his glasses that detects muscle movements in his face.

As the cursor glides across an onscreen keyboard, Hawking must twitch his cheek to select each letter or keyboard command. Using his old system, the simple act of opening a file or entering text into a search engine could take 10 minutes or more. Intel’s ACAT automates things such as navigating browser windows, managing files, and switching among tasks.

Using Intel’s new toolkit, Hawking can find and open files in seconds instead of minutes. (Intel)

The key to the new input method is a predictive text entry system developed for Hawking by SwiftKey. The company’s software analyzed Dr. Hawking’s papers and personal correspondence to build a model able to guess the words he’s most likely to enter next, says Haussecker, one of the leads on the Intel project.

Not surprisingly, Hawking uses words like “universe” and “cosmos” more than most people, he says.

“If he types ‘black,’ the system will automatically present the word ‘hole,’ ” Haussecker says. “He now has to type less than 20 percent of characters before it identifies the correct word.”

(Haussecker couldn’t say whether Hawking is as annoyed by autocorrect mistakes as the rest of us.)

While Intel started this project with Hawking in mind, its ultimate goal is to build a toolkit that allows the more than 3 million people who suffer from motor neuron disorders to use technology more effectively, Haussecker says.

Intel engineers worked with Hawking for more than three years to modify his current system, which features a mix of new and old technology. He’s currently using a Lenovo x230 tablet running Windows 7 Professional, along with Microsoft Office, the Intel toolkit, and SwiftKey.

One thing Hawking refused to upgrade: his distinctive voice. The physicist is still using a 1980s-era analog speech synthesizer. When Intel’s engineers tried to persuade Hawking to synthesize his voice using digital signal processors and software, he declined.


“He’s very particular about the timbre of his own voice,” he says. “When people tried to change it in the past, he’d say, ‘It doesn’t sound like me.’ That voice has become part of his persona; it’s the one thing we’re not allowed to touch.”

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.