Chipmaker Races to Save Stephen Hawking’s Speech as His Condition Deteriorates
Intel is developing communication technology that can quickly process and respond to signals Hawking sends from the few muscles in his body that he can still control
Intel is working on a system that will use physicist Stephen Hawking’s cheek twitch as well as mouth and eyebrow movements to provide signals to his computer. Hawking is looking to prevent the further deterioration of his ability to communicate.
Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has long relied on technology to help him connect with the outside world despite the degenerative motor neuron disease he has battled for the past 50 years. Whereas Hawking’s condition has deteriorated over time, a highly respected computer scientist indicated at last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that he and his team may be close to a breakthrough that could boost the rate at which the physicist communicates, which has fallen to a mere one word per minute in recent years.
For the past decade Hawking has used a voluntary twitch of his cheek muscle to compose words and sentences one letter at a time that are expressed through a speech-generation device connected to his computer. Each tweak stops a cursor that continuously scans text on a screen facing the scientist.
At CES, Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner noted that Hawking can actually make a number of other facial expressions as well that might also be used to speed up the rate at which the physicist conveys his thoughts. Even providing Hawking with two inputs would give him the ability to communicate using Morse code, “which would be a great improvement,” said Rattner, who is also director of Intel Labs.
Intel has since the late 1990s supplied Hawking with technology to help the scientist express himself. The latest chapter in their work together began in late 2011 when Hawking reached out to Gordon Moore, informing the Intel co-founder and father of Moore’s law that the physicist’s ability to compose text was slowing and inquiring whether Intel could help.