Stephen Hawking at Intel

Stephen Hawking: Mind of a Machine

Considered a genius of the modern era, Hawking revolutionized the perception of science. Speech synthesizing technology, developed by Intel, made it possible for him to communicate and teach his scientific theories and breakthroughs.


What is ALS?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - or ALS - is an incurable, critical, progressive neurodegenerative disorder which acutely disables the bodily function internally and externally. ALS is one of the few mysterious diseases; the root cause for this medical condition is still unknown. ALS induces the dilapidation and loss of vital neurons in the body, resulting in a range of severe problems. ALS patients suffer from numerous life-altering problems; beginning with preliminary symptoms (such as rigidity) and rapidly progress to having terminal symptoms (like paralysis).The degree of ALS manifestation varies from patient to patient. This disorder is extremely rare, as only around 6,000 cases are diagnosed each year. Usually, ALS patients live only an additional 2 to 5 years after the disease manifests in their body.


Stephen Hawking at the time of graduation (from Oxford University).


Stephen Hawking's Story

At the age of 21, Hawking discovered that he had a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of ALS. In his 30s to 40s, Hawking started experiencing slurred speech. Soon enough, he was paralyzed and lost the ability to verbally communicate. Due to paralysis, he had to use an automatic wheelchair. Despite being acutely paralyzed, he was more worried about his speech loss - really wanting to continue his lifetime passion of giving science lectures.

Hawking’s major contributions were relevant to the field of general relativity. These derived from a deep understanding of what is relevant to physics and astronomy, and especially from a mastery of wholly new mathematical techniques. Using similar techniques, Hawking proved the basic theorems on the laws governing black holes. Some of these include that stationary solutions of Einstein's equations with smooth event horizons must necessarily be axisymmetric and that in the evolution and interaction of black holes, the total surface area of the event horizons must increase.


Stephen Hawking training in a zero-gravity chamber.


A Groundbreaking Intelligent Speech Synthesizer

In 1986, Hawking received a computer program called the “Equalizer” from Walt Woltosz. Jawking could press a switch to select phrases, words or letter from a bank of about 2,500 - 3,000 that were already scanned into the system. The program was adapted to a small computer and attached to Hawking’s wheelchair. The voice he used had an American accent. Originally, Hawking activated a switch using his hand and could produce up to 15 words a minute, but later he lost the ability to use his hand.

Shortly after Hawking totally lost the ability to talk and move, he proposed to Intel to develop an assistive speech-generation machine for him. Intel knew it would be challenging to produce such a device - but having immense respect for Stephen Hawking, they agreed to take the initiative.

After creating numerous failed prototypes, Intel finally created an intelligent speech synthesizer by 1997 - using algorithmic SwiftKey (a tech company) software, exclusively for Stephen Hawking. This groundbreaking assistive machine works by predicting words - by translating brain patterns and facial expressions, then audibly vocalizing them. In Hawking’s case, a switch is connected to his cheek, serving as an interface with his computer system. Intel even programmed the machine with voice replication technology. Thus, Hawking feels comfortable The computer hardware system is situated under the wheelchair. Intel enhanced Hawking’s speech synthesizer in 2005, by adding a battery-efficient computer tablet. The tablet is equipped with an advanced software called Assistive Context-Aware Toolkit (ACAT). Hawking now has much more accessibility.

Hawking’s cheek (one of the few parts of his body he is able to control) movement is detected by an advanced infrared switch, which then controls the cursor on his tablet - allowing him to select any of the several assistive applications on his tablet. Hawking can do several tasks, such as check emails, surf on the Internet, write/pre-record lectures, video call through Skype, etc.

Following Intel’s model, other tech companies such as Microsoft, Mattel, Apple, and Texas Instruments have also developed their own medical-oriented speech-generation systems. Although the ACAT software is free for public now, the whole wheelchair-equipped machine itself is unaffordable for most ALS patients - who just don’t have any money to spare after high-costing doctor appointments and medical treatments. The new era of technology should open more opportunities in finding cures, enhancing treatments, and improving the standard of life for the medically ill.


Remembering Hawking

Stephen Hawking was considered a modern-day genius; and frequently compared to Albert Einstein. Hawking received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the US, from former President Obama in 2009. In 2014, there was a biopic made on Hawking, who was portrayed by Eddie Redmayne. He allowed the use of his copyrighted voice in the film. Hawking received the 2015 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for discovering that the galaxies were formed from quantum fluctuations in the early Universe. He received the Lifetime Award for immense contributions to the science field and the British culture at the Pride of Britain Awards. Sadly, on March 14, 2018, Hawking left this universe. Two days after Hawking's death, two Russian astronomers discovered GRB180316A, a newborn black hole, and dedicated their discovery to Stephen Hawking.

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” - Stephen Hawking

Thank you, Hawking, for transforming and revolutionizing science forever.

For more information about this topic, check out the following links: