Story Of Communication Device That Stephen Hawking Uses to Aid Speech

Ever since the advent and application of technology for human consumption, our living lifestyles have greatly been changed and improved on for the better. The application of technology can virtually be observed in every sector in the economy, from health to commerce, from trade to transport and from entertainment to, of course, communication.

In the area of communication, which is the main area of interest, the importance of technology is best exhibited in various existing communication applications. For instance, with cellular phones, satellite systems, television, computer (hardware and software) among other applications/devices. Despite the fact that the application of technology in the aforementioned communication devices is too well familiar with most people, the monumental and potential role played or that can be played by technology was and has best been illustrated in the Stephen Hawking’s case.

The inspiring and emotional story of Stephen Hawking, a British cosmologist and physicist, has been well captured by various publications over the years. He is famously known for his authored best seller book “A Brief History of Time” (published in 1988) and of course, the Hawking radiation. Separately from the two reasons for Hawking’s popularity, he is likewise well-known for having a certain kind of disease.

At the age of 21 and while still in graduate school, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).The disorder or disease is also every now and then referred to as a motor neuron disease. Put simply, the motor neuron disease is synonymous with the death of neurons in the brain. The destructive results of the disease over time include muscle going into spasm and weakening. This subsequently leads to difficulty in speaking, swallowing and ultimately, breathing.

The Problem of Communication and the Solution for Hawking

Eventually, as was expected, Hawking lost his ability to move without help and speak (tracheotomy was performed on him) like most people do. As a distinguished scientist and researcher it increasingly became virtually impossible for Hawking to communicate or disseminate information without writing and speaking (at meetings and conferences) and to change position easily. The solution to Hawking’s problems was the development of a computer based communication system in 1997 by the Intel Corporation. Subsequent improvements through the years have been possible as is highlighted below even though the computer system he uses is replaced after every two years. This is to cope with his gradual decline in muscle functions.

Initially Hawking used to use a spelling card, and then employed the use of computer program Equalizer by the use of a hand clicker. By around 2008, with the continued degrading of the numb nerves, Hawking completely lost his ability to use the clicker. A solution to this another negative development was badly needed.

And the solution came. A switching device which was subsequently named as the “cheek switch” was developed for Hawkins’s use by his assistant graduate. The working of the cheek switch was simple. Okay, not that simple in terms of the science involved. The cheek switch was attached to Hawkins’s glasses. When he tensed his cheek muscle, the cheek switch could detect by the use of a low infrared beam.

Over the next one year and few months, Hawking managed to write emails, writing publications and speaking among other activities with the aid of the cheek switch. With further deterioration in muscles functions in 2011, Hawking could only manage to write about one or two words per minute. This made Hawking write a letter requesting for possible improvements from Intel.

In the year 2012, to better understand the needs of Hawking, the Intel group used a system to record hours and hours of videos. These videos involved how he often interacted with his computer in performing his day- to- day activities. The awaited improvement to the existing system came in September 2013.The program was nicknamed “Aster Torture”. The ASTER acronym stands for ASsistive Text EditoR. A few months later, it became obvious that further adaptations were needed. The adaptations came from Swift Key which was incorporated seamlessly with the Intel system.

The SwiftKey adaptations were comparatively better when compared to the old word-prediction system Hawking’s system initially used. The major difference was that, the SwiftKey adaptive word predictor enabled Hawking to select a word after typing a letter while the previous system required him to select a word from a list in the bottom of his user interface. For Hawking to be able to use the new improvement, he had to be trained as he was so used to the earlier system due to the complete functional difference as has been highlighted above.

The relatively newer version of the user interface that Hawking uses is called ACAT (Assistive Contextually Aware Toolkit).The speech system was released as an open-source code by Intel and is only available for PCs. For this purpose, the adaptation of ACAT to serve various distinctive communicative disabilities has thus been possible over the years. The speech system is made up 3 basic parts;

  1. The infrared or webcam input-Serves to detect or be aware of facial movements.
  2. The interface which is also known as EZ Keys, a product of Words Plus Inc. -selects various required letters to form a word or words.
  • The software which acts like autocomplete which is common with most tablets and smartphones-predicts what or the word the user intends to type, which then form sentences.
  1. The Output-obviously the last part enables the speaking loud of the complete sentence typed. The speech synthesizer that Hawking uses was developed by Speech+. The only disadvantage to the speech synthesizer to any existing or potential user is the accent, which has been widely described as either Scottish or Scandinavian or American. For Hawking’s case, it was later altered to his liking, his voice. Dennis Klatt, a MIT engineer made this possible through his DEC talk program. This program enabled translation of the text into speech.

The ACAT virtual keyboard software also serves two other main functions, to select and use of various programs and for internet use.

Lastly, what we have been able to observe from above is how technology has greatly improved on our general ability to perform various tasks which may not have been possible due to a condition or disease. Of course, technology keeps changing from time to time for the better. The situation is no different with the communication system that was developed for Hawking and also for other people with the same communication problems. In fact, for Hawking’s case, further improvements have continuously been suggested to accommodate for the gradual degradation of muscle functions. Taking everything into account, the importance of technology (communication device) that Stephen Hawking uses cannot be overstressed here.