Tech Innovation

How Intel keeps Stephen Hawking talking

Stephen Hawking assistive technology

Professor Stephen Hawking is arguably as famous for his computerised voice as he is for his ground-breaking work with general relativity and black holes. Intel has been working with Hawking since 1997, helping to maintain and improve the assistive computer system that enables him to interact with the world. As Hawking’s Motor Neurone Disease has advanced, his ability to communicate has slowed to one word per minute.


Hawking didn’t want a completely new system

Hawking’s computer system uses a rudimentary timed interface. A cursor automatically scans across an on-screen keyboard and whenever the renowned physicist moves his cheek, he triggers an infrared sensor. This stops the moving cursor and selects whatever key or option the cursor was highlighting at the time.

It’s not perfect and if Intel’s engineers could build a new assistive system from scratch, it would probably look very different. It might use cutting-edge eye tracking technology or an electroencephalogram (EEG) approach, which translates brain activity into simple commands. The problem was this: Hawking didn’t want a completely new system.

Hawking with PA Jeanna Lee York

“Stephen has used the same interface for decades,” explains Lama Nachman, Principal Engineer at User Experience Research at Intel Labs. “He is very adamant about keeping it. So our task was to retain the familiar user experience, but make that experience more intuitive and powerful.”

Hawking at home

A new word predictor from Swiftkey

It’s taken more than two years of trial and error, working closely with Professor Hawking to create a bespoke enhanced version of his original system. Lama Nachman and the team have re-coded the software from scratch, adding an array of new features. One of the biggest improvements is a new word predictor from SwiftKey. Just like a modern smartphone keyboard, the system based on SwiftKey’s SDK alternative keyboards for Android and iPhone that learn from you the individual, it is capable of autocompleting words as they are typed in. It can also predict the next most commonly-used word, dramatically reducing the number of ‘clicks’ it takes for Hawking to build words.

Hawking and his carer Pete read the paper

As they were unable to redesign Hawking’s computer interface, Lama and her team looked for improvements they could make elsewhere. They started by observing how Professor Hawking used his system, tracking ‘interaction flows’ that included: writing documents or emails, giving lectures, searching the web and reading PDFs. Once a flow had been identified, engineers then attempted to streamline it.

“If you’re using Microsoft Word,” explains Lama, “which Stephen uses a lot, there are a few sets of functions that you want to use most often – open a new document, save, edit, and so on. We added a lot of contextual menus to his system, so he can select one with a single click, rather than having to go to the mouse, then to the menu, then to select an option. We created a lot of these new contextual options throughout the system to speed up use.”

Hawking using his new comms system

Intel advances the assistive technology field

Professor Hawking has been using his new software for several months while Lama and her team have been debugging and fine-tuning it. It’s almost finished, and when it is, Intel plans to make the system available to the open source community. It’s a move that will allow other people to take the platform and develop it further. Intel hopes that its pioneering work with Professor Hawking will go on to help people with similar disabilities and communication issues, advancing the assistive technology field.

Hawking in his library at home

Professor Hawking was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease when he was 21 and wasn’t expected to live past the age of 25. With technology’s help, he has not only defied his illness, he has regained his independence and clung stubbornly to his identity, even if that has meant saying ‘no’ to some technology upgrades.

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