Intel and Stephen Hawking – Help a Genius, Help the World

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  December 3, 2014

Intel and Professor Stephen Hawking demonstrated a new Intel-created communications platform to replace his decades-old system. The customizable platform dramatically improves Hawking’s ability to communicate, and will be available to research and technology communities by January of next year.

Hawking has an MND (motor neuron disease) related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a condition that has progressed over the years and left him almost entirely paralyzed. As a result, he can only communicate through technology. By studying Hawking’s acute needs, and the very specific relationship between this man and his machine, Intel developed a tailored solution called ACAT (Assistive Context Aware Toolkit) that results in dramatically improved communication:

  • The Intel-created software user interface enables existing and new technologies to efficiently work with each other. The result: Hawking’s typing speed is twice as fast, and there is a 10x improvement in common tasks, such as easier, more accurate and faster browsing, editing, managing and navigating the Web, emails and documents; opening a new document; and saving, editing and switching between tasks.
  • Hawking’s existing cheek sensor is detected by an infrared switch mounted to his glasses and helps him select characters on the computer display. Integrating software from British-based SwiftKey has greatly improved the system’s ability to learn from Hawking to predict his next characters and words so he only has to type less than 20 percent of all characters.
  • This information is sent to his existing speech synthesizer so he can communicate to others through his Lenovo* laptop running Microsoft Windows. For example, to conduct a Web search, Hawking previously had to take arduous routes, such as exiting from his communication window, navigating a mouse to run the browser, navigating the mouse again to the search bar, and finally typing the search text. The new system automates all of these steps for a seamless, swift process.

Intel’s ACAT also has the potential to become the backbone of a modern, customizable system other researchers and technologists can use to benefit those who have MND and quadriplegia, conditions that affect over 3 million people worldwide. The Intel-created system is a software interface for researchers and technologists to create customized solutions enabled by touch, eye blinks, eyebrow movements or other user inputs for communication, and can be customized and changed to suit different users.

With the platform being open, accessible and free, Intel and Hawking envision that research and technology communities – such as those focused on sensing, text prediction, context awareness and user interface design – will build upon and bring new and improved solutions to market.

The pitch

By helping one of the world’s most uncommon people, Intel aims to help the common good.

Final analysis

Dr. Stephen Hawking is a notable person and intellect, and a dominant voice in scientific thought in both the 20th and 21st centuries. That his voice for nearly two decades now has emanated from a computer-operated synthesizer is a simple irony. A more compelling point is that without science and innovation, Hawking would literally have no voice and, quite likely, no life. Both the world and its people would be a poorer place because of it.

But even the most brilliant minds need an occasional reboot. In Hawking’s case, the computing system and methodologies he had been using for years needed what amounted to a rep/replace refresh. That was provided courtesy of Intel, with what can only be described as remarkably positive results.

But the fact is that this isn’t the first time that Hawking and Intel have worked together. In fact, their relationship dates back for over two decades, after Hawking met Intel co-founder Gordon Moore at a conference, sparking a friendship and innovative collaboration that has profited both parties equally.

How can that be so? Because by living and working at what seems like the far edge of the possible, Hawking inspired scientists from Intel Labs to reach farther and achieve more than they might have otherwise.

The result of their latest collaboration – the new Intel ACAT platform – is impressive both technologically and in the degree to which it should improve Hawking’s life and work. But more important is the foundation those efforts provide for additional, future innovations.

The fact is that though technology has provided innumerable, often astounding benefits, a number of audiences have been largely ignored or left behind, including many of the disabled. Partly that’s due to the simple commercial nature of the market, which goes where it knows (or hopes) the majority of the money will be.

But all too many are continuously, simplistically tempted by the easy bucks—the quick market killings that deliver maximum benefits for minimal effort. There’s no particular shame in that, but to its credit, it is a path Intel chose to ignore in working with Hawking.

By working to clearly understand Hawking’s condition and acute requirements, as well as the particular relationship between him and his machines, Intel researchers developed technologies with far greater implications. By successfully addressing the problems of one of this or any century’s most remarkable people, Intel created solutions that can potentially help millions of others.

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