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How Intel and ThinkPad gave Professor Stephen Hawking a voice

Team members of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab
From Left: Alex Nguyen, Sangita Sharma, Max Pinaroc, Sai Prasad, Lama Nachman, and Pete Denman. Team members of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab, who developed Stephen Hawking’s computer interface.

There was a moment in the mid-1980s when it appeared that Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018) had reached a premature end. During a trip to Geneva, the world-renowned physicist contracted pneumonia, which devastated his already frail body. As he lay unconscious, tethered to a ventilator, doctors concluded that he was beyond help and gently suggested to his first wife, Jane Wilde, that she consider turning the machine off.

But Hawking had beaten the odds before. At 21, he was diagnosed with ALS, a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function. He was told that he would only live for a few years. At the time, he was still working on “A Brief History of Time” — a ground-breaking work that would help bring cosmology to the masses — when Jane demanded Hawking be brought home to Cambridge.

What followed was a miraculous yet extremely difficult recovery. Doctors performed a tracheotomy, which saved Hawking’s life but robbed him of his voice. ALS had already left him unable to write, and without the ability to speak, he feared that he’d never finish his book. With the help of Intel, and an incredible amount of dedication, Professor Hawking began the long journey of trial and error to find technology fast enough to keep up with his mind.

 

At first, he communicated with a primitive card system. Next, a program was developed that allowed him to type by pressing a switch with his thumb. By way of a rudimentary synthesizer, he was able to speak — a fact that enabled him to publish “A Brief History of Time,” which has gone on to sell more than ten million copies. As the ALS continued to progress, Hawking lost the ability to move his thumbs and switched to using a single cheek muscle to type via an infrared switch attached to his glasses.

By 2011, Professor Hawking was getting frustrated by his low writing output and wrote to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore asking for help. Intel had been supporting Hawking’s computer needs since the late 1990s. Moore immediately dispatched a team to Cambridge, which included Lama Nachman, the Director of Intel’s Anticipatory Computer Lab in Silicon Valley.

 

Professor Stephen Hawking and Lana Nachman

Nachman was shocked to discover the amount of time Hawking required to complete the simplest of operations. He could only write one, maybe two, words a minute, and the awkward interface system forced him to spend four minutes to open a simple file. Here was a genius who could explain the origins of the universe, but was being blocked by an outdated software platform.

The team was overflowing with cutting-edge ideas, from eye-tracking systems to brain activity technology. But after months of explorations, Nachman realized that Hawking didn’t want a radical change. After all, the physicist was in his 70s and had intimately used the same system for most of his life. So, the challenge became: how can you make his trusted interface run like something new?

 

That’s when they developed ACAT, an Assistive Contextually Aware Toolkit based on Hawking’s speech. “I was finding it very difficult to continue to communicate effectively and to do the things I love to do,” the late Professor told reporters in 2014. “With the improvements made, I am now able to write much faster and that means I can continue to give lectures, write papers and books, and, of course, speak with my family and friends more easily.” Hawking’s writing output more than doubled. The file that once took four minutes to open was ready in less than ten seconds.

In the summer of 2015, Intel made the assistive software available to the public for free. In the first week, licenses for the open-source platform were downloaded 10,000 times. Suddenly, thousands of people around the globe suffering from motor neuron diseases had a new way to communicate.

 

“The problem with a lot of assistive technology is that it is so expensive and unattainable,” said Nachman. “People send me emails that say, ‘I’ve been dying to communicate with my loved ones, and now I can.’” Her voice dropped and she paused briefly to compose herself. “That’s when you really see the impact you’re having.”

Along with the development of ACAT, Intel assembled a team to ensure Hawking was outfitted with the very best hardware available. That team, based in Oregon, is led by engineer Travis Bonifield, who began to work with Hawking in 2001, before the advent of tablet computers. At first, Bonifield was forced to buy a laptop and “rip the thing completely apart and rebuild it as a tablet” in order to fit it on Hawking’s wheelchair.

 

The adaptation was ingenious, but not without problems. “Everything was custom designed, so if something went wrong, we had to take it all apart and put it back together,” said Bonifield. “And every time we took it apart and put it back together, it seemed like we had another problem.”

In 2011, while Nachman’s team was beginning a redesign of Hawking’s software, Bonifield was revamping Hawking’s hardware. He swapped out the old system for a Lenovo ThinkPad X220t convertible tablet. The computer could easily fit in the enclosure, had more than enough speed, and featured a superior daylight readable display.

“Stephen was outside a lot, and with some of these laptops, even ‘daylight readable’ ones, he wouldn’t have been able to see the screen in the sun,” he said.

Until his recent passing, Bonifield updated Hawking’s Lenovo computer every two years. Hawking used a ThinkPad Yoga 260, a model Hawking selected himself in 2016. All along, reliability and durability were the key criteria. “Stephen traveled all around, and his system needed to work,” said David Rittenhouse, the mechanical engineer for the Hawking project. “We couldn’t have him roll out there on stage and have a problem.”

 

After years of early experimentation, successes, failures, and iterations, the amount of hardware maintenance required towards the end, said Bonifield, was “virtually nil,” which allowed them to focus on creating additional features. Rittenhouse connected with Sound Research, whose CEO, Tom Paddock, designed audio systems for the likes of Grateful Dead and Stevie Wonder. Paddock created a new system for Hawking in 2016 and the most recent setup included a forward-facing camera so that Hawking could see what was on the other side of his computer.

Working all the way until the end, Hawking continued to build upon his exhaustive research into black holes, the early universe, and the black hole information problem. In 2016, he and colleagues Malcolm J. Perry and Andrew Strominger published their paper entitled, “Soft Hair on Black Holes,” which postulates that information from items devoured by black holes lives on in “soft, supertranslation hair” that remains on the horizon after the black hole dies. Their work continues to keep astrophysicists around the world up at night.

For the Intel team, giving Hawking a voice proved to be the project of a lifetime. “I’ve never been one to be very impressed with celebrity, but it’s hard not to be impressed when you read Stephen’s life story,” said Bonifield. “This was about more than just providing computing to Stephen. We helped someone who was a world treasure be able to communicate with the world.”

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Professor Stephen Hawking passed away in his home in Cambridge, England, early in the morning of 14 March 2018, at the age of 76.

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