Stephen Hawking gets synthesiser upgrade to help him speak faster

Computer giant Intel spent three years revamping scientists' interface

Steve Connor
Tuesday 02 December 2014 17:12 GMT
British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking
British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Getty Images)

Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous wheelchair user, has had a computer upgrade to speed up his ability to talk through his speech synthesiser – but has insisted on keeping its distinctive electronic voice.

Following three years of intensive research by Intel, Professor Hawking’s computer-controlled “interface” with the world has been revamped to speed up his communications.

“My old system is more than 20 years old and I was finding it very difficult to continue to communicate effectively and do the things I love to do,” Professor Hawking said in London.

“With the improvements made, I am now able to write much faster, and it means I can continue to give lectures, write papers and books and of course speak with my family and friends more easily,” he said.

“This new system is life-changing for me and I hope it will serve me well for the next 20 years,” he added.

Professor Hawking, 72, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in his 20s and given only a few years left to live. However, he went on to become one of the world’s greatest cosmologists and author of A Brief History of Time, a best-seller first published in 1988.

He has survived progressive muscle paralysis and now communicates by small movements of a cheek muscle which are picked up by infrared sensors attached to a computer.

He writes and constructs sentences for his voice synthesiser by twitching his cheek when he wants to choose a character on a list that he sees highlighted by an automatic scrolling device on his computer screen.

However, over the years his writing and speaking rates have slowed considerably, down from about 20 words a minute two decades ago to less than one word a minute three years ago, said Lama Nachman, the principal engineer on the Hawking project at Intel.

Following the upgrade, Professor Hawking can now surf the web about 10 times faster than before, can use email to send documents without assistance and can speak at about twice the rate prior to the upgrade, Ms Nachman said.

“Stephen wasn’t really looking for a new and radically different interface. He was really looking for something that was very familiar," Ms Nachman said.

“He was looking for something that looked and felt like his current interface, something he is very used to and has memorised. But he was looking for it to be much more effective,” she said.

The “keep Hawking talking” project at Intel involved carefully observing how Professor Hawking went about his daily life, both at home and at work at Cambridge University, where he was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics until his retirement in 2009.

“He gave us unprecedented access into his life and his day-to-day existence. We watched hours and hours of videos. We visited him at home, travelled with him, watched everything he did,” said Pete Denman of Intel, who also uses a wheelchair.

A key part of the upgrade was to include text-prediction software developed by SwiftKey, a language technology company in the UK. This means that less than a fifth of the characters within a given text are actually chosen by Professor Hawking, with the rest predicted by the software.

“Medicine has not been able to cure me, so I rely on technology to help me communicate and live,” said Professor Hawking, who revealed that Intel has offered to release the software free on the Web for anyone to use and develop.

“By making this technology freely available it has the potential to greatly improve the lives of disabled people all over the world,” he said.

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