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.
At the end of World War II, mathematician and early computer scientist Alan Turing was a hero. He had led the British in breaking the Engima code, an effort that was hailed for bringing the war to a close.
But not long after the war, in 1952, he was arrested for what was then a crime in England: his sexuality, or, in legalese, “acts of gross indecency between adult men.” He had a choice: imprisonment or estrogen. He chose the hormone treatment, which made him impotent and caused him to grow breasts. Two years later, he died in what is widely believed to have been a suicide.
In more recent times, England has sought ways to repent for what it did to Alan Turing. In 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology. But official forgiveness remains in the offing: Earlier this year, members of parliament introduced legislation to pardon Turing. Now, several of the nation’s top scientists, including Stephen Hawking, and other leaders have penned a letter to the Telegraph, throwing their support behind the bill.
Stephen Hawking is testing out a groundbreaking device to allow him to communicate through brain waves in a project that scientists have likened to ‘hacking into his brain.’
Hawking, 70, has been working with scientists at Standford University who are developing a the iBrain - a tool which picks up brain waves and communicates them via a computer.
The scientist, who has motor neurone disease and lost the power of speech nearly 30 years ago, currently uses a computer to communicate but is losing the ability as the condition worsens.
But he has been working with Philip Low, a professor at Stanford and inventor of the iBrain, a brain scanner that measures electrical activity.
“We’d like to find a way to bypass his body, pretty much hack his brain,” said Prof Low.
Already surrounded by machines that allow him, painstakingly, to communicate, the physicist Stephen Hawking last summer donned what looked like a rakish black headband that held a feather-light device the size of a small matchbox.
Called the iBrain, this simple-looking contraption is part of an experiment that aims to allow Dr. Hawking — long paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — to communicate by merely thinking.
The iBrain is part of a new generation of portable neural devices and algorithms intended to monitor and diagnose conditions like sleep apnea, depression and autism. Invented by a team led by Philip Low, a 32-year-old neuroscientist who is chief executive of NeuroVigil, a company based in San Diego, the iBrain is gaining attention as a possible alternative to expensive sleep labs that use rubber and plastic caps riddled with dozens of electrodes and usually require a patient to stay overnight.
“The iBrain can collect data in real time in a person’s own bed, or when they’re watching TV, or doing just about anything,” Dr. Low said.
The device uses a single channel to pick up waves of electrical brain signals, which change with different activities and thoughts, or with the pathologies that accompany brain disorders.
But the raw waves are hard to read because they must pass through the many folds of the brain and then the skull, so they are interpreted with an algorithm that Dr. Low first created for his Ph.D., earned in 2007 at the University of California, San Diego. (The original research, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was done on zebra finches.)
About the Hawking experiment, he said, “The idea is to see if Stephen can use his mind to create a consistent and repeatable pattern that a computer can translate into, say, a word or letter or a command for a computer.”
The researchers traveled to Dr. Hawking’s offices in Cambridge, England, fitted him with the iBrain headband and asked him “to imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball,” Dr. Low said. “Of course, he can’t actually move his hand, but the motor cortex in his brain can still issue the command and generate electrical waves in his brain.”
The algorithm, called Spears, was able to discern Dr. Hawking’s thoughts as signals, which were represented as a series of spikes on a grid.
“We wanted to see if there was any change in the signal,” Dr. Low said. “And in fact, we did see a change in the signal.” NeuroVigil plans to repeat the study in large populations of patients with A.L.S. and other neurodegenerative diseases.
These preliminary results come as Dr. Hawking’s ability to communicate diminishes as his disease progresses. The 70-year-old physicist, whose mind has produced crucial insights in theoretical physics as well as the best-seller “A Brief History of Time,” now needs several minutes to generate a simple message. He uses a pair of infrared glasses that picks up twitches in his cheek. His team in Cambridge, England, has dubbed this the “cheek switch.”
“Dr. Low and his company have done some outstanding work in this field,” Dr. Hawking said in a statement. “I am participating in this project in the hope that I can offer insights and practical advice to NeuroVigil. I wish to assist in research, encourage investment in this area, and, most importantly, to offer some future hope to people diagnosed with A.L.S. and other neurodegenerative conditions.”
The physicist has also worked with other inventors seeking to better elucidate his thoughts. Engineers at the semiconductor and computing giant Intel recently hooked up a customized computer to communicate with his cheek-reading infrared glasses, along with a voice synthesizer, a webcam for using Skype, and special monitors. Intel is developing new face-recognition software that can monitor subtle changes in expression and may help Dr. Hawking communicate more efficiently.
Sam Blackburn has been responsible for the technology which allows Stephen Hawking to communicate for the past five years. Now he’s moving on. The challenge for his successor: to keep that well-known voice in working order
You have been Stephen Hawking’s technician since 2006. What was top of your to-do list when you started work?
At first the system was breaking all the time. I’d get calls at 1 o’clock in the morning saying “Stephen can’t speak, what do we do?” So I needed to modernise the system. One of the first pieces I improved was the infrared sensor mounted on Stephen’s cheek. That kind of incremental improvement is much easier for him to accept than a radical new system, because the learning curve associated with that is very steep. Stephen wouldn’t be able to ask for help because the very thing he wouldn’t be able to use would be the speech system. Understandably that has made him very reluctant to upgrade.
Stephen’s voice is very distinctive, but you say there might be a problem retaining it?
I guess the most interesting thing in my office is a little grey box, which contains the only copy we have of Stephen’s hardware voice synthesiser. The card inside dates back to the 1980s and this particular one contains Stephen’s voice. There’s a processor on it which has a unique program that turns text into speech that sounds like Stephen’s, and we have only two of these cards. The company that made them went bankrupt and nobody knows how it works any more. I am trying to reverse engineer it, which is quite tricky.
Can’t you update it with a new synthesiser?
No. It has to sound exactly the same. The voice is one of the unique things that defines Stephen in my opinion. He could easily change to a voice that was clearer, perhaps more soothing to listen to - less robotic sounding - but it wouldn’t be Stephen’s voice any more.
How exactly does Stephen communicate?
He has used a menu controlled by a computer system to speak since about 1986. Basically, a computer highlights cells in a big grid of letters or words, and when the correct one is highlighted the user presses a switch of some sort. When he became unable to move his hands sufficiently to use the switch, he moved to an infrared system mounted on his glasses, which detects movement in his cheek muscle.
What’s going to happen when Stephen can no longer use the muscles in his cheek?
Stephen has motor neurone disease, which causes a progressive decay of the nerves, and now his facial muscles are the only ones he can control reasonably well. Those are now fading too, unfortunately. This has always been known, but Stephen has outlived all the estimates for the stages of his nerve decay.
The result is that the system has now become very slow. Stephen’s rate of speech is down to about one word per minute, and while I am making slight advances in the technology he is using, the nerve decay has now reached the point where we need to move to some new technology. We have tried some eye-tracking systems; the other method is brain scanning, and there are all sorts of techniques for that. So far we have only considered those that don’t require intervention - no surgery certainly, and no shaving of the head.
Is he excited about the prospect of using such cutting-edge technologies to communicate better?
I find it exciting. Stephen has a stubborn attitude towards this sort of thing. He feels that he has to prove he can still use his existing system. The result is that when there is a communications expert in the room - someone trying to show him new technology - his speed using the existing system suddenly increases.
The proponents of string theory seem to think they can provide a more elegant description of the Universe by adding additional dimensions. But some other theoreticians think they’ve found a way to view the Universe as having one less dimension. The work sprung out of a long argument with Stephen Hawking about the nature of black holes, which was eventually solved by the realization that the event horizon could act as a hologram, preserving information about the material that’s gotten sucked inside. The same sort of math, it turns out, can actually describe any point in the Universe, meaning that the entire content Universe can be viewed as a giant hologram, one that resides on the surface of whatever two-dimensional shape will enclose it.
That was the premise of panel at this summer’s World Science Festival, which described how the idea developed, how it might apply to the Universe as a whole, and how they were involved in its development.
The whole argument started when Stephen Hawking attempted to describe what happens to matter during its lifetime in a black hole. He suggested that, from the perspective of quantum mechanics, the information about the quantum state of a particle that enters a black hole goes with it. This isn’t a problem until the black hole starts to boil away through what’s now called Hawking radiation, which creates a separate particle outside the event horizon while destroying one inside. This process ensures that the matter that escapes the black hole has no connection to the quantum state of the material that had gotten sucked in. As a result, information is destroyed. And that causes a problem, as the panel described.
A belief that heaven or an afterlife awaits us is a “fairy story” for people afraid of death, Stephen Hawking has said.
In a dismissal that underlines his firm rejection of religious comforts, Britain’s most eminent scientist said there was nothing beyond the moment when the brain flickers for the final time.
Hawking, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, shares his thoughts on death, human purpose and our chance existence in an exclusive interview with the Guardian today.
The incurable illness was expected to kill Hawking within a few years of its symptoms arising, an outlook that turned the young scientist to Wagner, but ultimately led him to enjoy life more, he has said, despite the cloud hanging over his future.
“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” he said.
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” he added.
Full story: guardian.co.uk
LONDON (Reuters) – God did not create the universe and the “Big Bang” was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, the eminent British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking argues in a new book.
In “The Grand Design,” co-authored with U.S. physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking says a new series of theories made a creator of the universe redundant, according to the Times newspaper which published extracts on Thursday.
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” Hawking writes.
“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
About damn time…