Stephen Hawking's new phone-inspired speech kit doubles his typing speed

The new software, using technologies developed with phone keyboard firm SwiftKey, analyses Hawking's language and guesses what words he is going to use

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 02 December 2014 14:50 GMT
Professor Stephen Hawking, who turned 70 this year, speaking during the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics
Professor Stephen Hawking, who turned 70 this year, speaking during the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics (AP)

The same software that has helps phone users type more quickly has been installed in the computer that helps Stephen Hawking to speak, roughly doubling the speed at which he can talk.

Intel and SwiftKey, which is best known as the maker of a phone keyboard that helps users to type faster, have worked with Hawking to create the software. Intel has been providing the professor with the technology to allow him to speak for 20 years, and Hawking said that he hopes the new technology will work for another 20 years.

Hawking’s motor neurone disease means that he is only able to communicate using a small sensor in his cheek. He uses the sensor to type characters and numbers on his keyboard.

By embedding SwiftKey’s technology into that keyboard, and feeding all of his writing into it, the time it takes for Hawking to type has been halved. SwiftKey’s technology predicts whole words, in the same way it does for users of the phone app.

However, the mistakes that Hawking makes are fundamentally different to those made by people on phone keyboards, SwiftKey said. While most users of SwiftKey on phones tend to write small messages quickly and sloppily, Hawking is an excellent speller and uses his system to write long-form messages, so the system was tailored towards helping him to write for longer and minimise typos, the company said.

“By understanding the way he uses language, SwiftKey's technology makes it faster and easier for Stephen to communicate, leaving him more time to consider the secrets of the universe,” Joe Osborne, who led SwiftKey’s work on the project.

That meant that they had to build a personal ‘language model’ for Hawking, which looked through his writing, including unpublished papers, to analyse what words he would be most likely to use.

The software can also adapt to whatever talk or book Hawking is working on, helping the software become even more accurate.

The announcement coincides with the release of a new film about Hawking’s life, starring Eddie Redmayne.

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