January 16, 2015

Scaling Your Business, Trends and Insights 3 min read

The Creation of Stephen Hawking’s Talking Computer

Dr. Stephen Hawking has lived with ALS since his diagnosis in 1963, soon after his 21st birthday. Although this degenerative disease has led to debilitating physical disabilities for Hawking, it has not prevented him from conducting groundbreaking research within the fields of cosmology and theoretical physics. In 1985, his ALS advanced to the point where Hawking could no longer speak, which led him to begin using a computer system to speak for him.

[caption id="attachment_1734" align="alignnone" width="500"]Stephen Hawking Photograph: Jason Bye[/caption]

Hawking's Story

For about 10 years after Hawking's diagnosis, he managed to remain independent and reasonably active. Eventually, his motor function and his speech deteriorated, though. In 1985, Hawking underwent a tracheotomy, which resulted in the permanent loss of his voice. Almost immediately, Hawking began using assistive technology to communicate. As Hawking's condition has deteriorated, Intel became involved and has continued to expand and upgrade the system to enable him to continue communicating.

Text-to-Speech Technology Advances

In 1997, Intel began assisting Hawking by designing the system he uses to communicate. The initial computer system Hawking used was operated by a hand switch, which Hawking squeezed to create the words he wanted to say. Slowly, as Hawking's condition deteriorated, Intel worked to design a different system. The new system enabled Hawking to use facial muscles to create his speech. The movement of his cheek muscles would send a message to a switch attached to Hawking's glasses, which would then enable him to choose letters of words on a computer screen. Even with newer auto-complete technology, this process could be slow and laborious. The process of constructing one word for the voice synthesizer to say might take one minute. Intel's latest text-to-speech voice assistive technology will work with facial recognition and more intuitive word-predictor technology. The newest advances promise up to 10 times faster communication for Hawking.

Future Developments

The newest release of the voice assistive technology designed by Intel will incorporate improvements to the software that interprets Hawking's facial movements and translates them into voice commands. The software also enables Hawking to open emails and enter text to communicate online. The next step in advancement involves the text-to-speech voice assistive technology becoming available for general use by a broader range of the disabled population as open-source software.


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