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Intel and ThinkPad give 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 had reached the 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 Hawking was beyond help and gently suggested to his first wife, Jane, that she consider turning the machine off.

But Jane knew that Hawking had beaten the odds before. At 21, he was diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disease and told that he would only live for a few years. However, Hawking went on to produce groundbreaking scientific research. He was working on a book titled A Brief History of Time when Jane demanded Hawking be brought home to Cambridge.

What followed was a miraculous—but extremely difficult—recovery. Doctors performed a tracheotomy, which saved Hawking’s life but robbed him of his voice. The ALS had already left him unable to write, and if he couldn’t talk, he feared that he’d never finish his book.

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 and using a synthesizer, he was able to speak. He went on to publish A Brief History of Time, which has sold 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, the scientist was 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 and 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: the physicist was in his 70s and didn’t want to wrestle with new systems. They switched to working on less disruptive improvements, like developing a new contextually aware software platform that eliminated unnecessary steps and, in partnership with SwiftKey, tailoring a word predictor system specifically to Hawking. “The trick is to meet him where he’s ready,” says Nachman.

Today, Hawking’s writing output has more than doubled. The file that once took four minutes to open is ready in less than ten seconds.

“I was finding it very difficult to continue to communicate effectively and so do the things I love to do,” he 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.”

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. People around the globe suffering from motor neuron diseases or other conditions that severely restrict their movement have used and modified the system—called ACAT, or Assistive Contextually Aware Toolkit.

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

Along with the development of ACAT, Intel has assembled a team to ensure Hawking is 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,” says 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 is outside a lot, and with some of these laptops, even ‘daylight readable’ ones, he wouldn’t be able to see the screen in the sun,” he says.

Since then, Bonifield has updated Hawking’s Lenovo computer every two years. Today, Hawking uses a ThinkPad Yoga 260, a model Hawking selected himself in 2016. All along, reliability and durability have been key criteria. “Stephen’s traveling all around, and his system has to work,” says David Rittenhouse, the mechanical engineer for the Hawking project. “We can’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 today, says Bonifield, is “virtually nil,” which has 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 current setup includes a forward facing camera, so that Hawking can see what is on the other side of his computer.

While the two teams have achieved a number of significant breakthroughs, they continue to search for improvements—especially as Hawking continues to grow older. On any given day, Hawking’s strength can vary, which affects his ability to flex his cheek muscle. Nachman’s team has been working on new algorithms, using data collected over many months, to better understand Hawking’s range, which will allow the sensor to better interpret his movements. They plan to implement the new digital system this year.

All the while, Hawking continues 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, a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge and Andrew Strominger, the Gwill E. York Professor of Physics and Director for the Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature at Harvard, published their paper entitled, “Soft Hair on Black Holes,” in the Physical Review Letters journal 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, enabling Hawking to keep talking for as long as possible so he can continue these important collaborations is the main objective. And for everyone involved, it has proven 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,” says Bonifield, who has met Hawking in person several times. “This is more than just providing computing to Stephen. We are helping someone who is a world treasure to be able to continue to communicate with the world.”

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