Intel, Stephen Hawking aim to spur assistive technology development

Intel outlined an update to Stephen Hawking's communications platform and plans to provide a toolkit that can be used to advance technologies that could help those affected by motor neuron disorders.


Intel on Tuesday outlined a new system that will replace Stephen Hawking's communication platform that enables him to communicate and provided a toolkit for developers to tailor the software for the 3 million people with motor neuron diseases.

Hawking, who has a motor neuron disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), has relied on his previous communications platform for the last decade. Intel is providing an update and will provide a customized version to researchers and technologists in January.

The news, outlined at an event in London, could enable developers to better create systems to improve the lives of those with motor neuron diseases and quadriplegia.

Hawking's life is the subject of the movie The Theory of Everything. Intel Labs researchers have been working with Hawking for three years to replace his communications system with more modern technology. Hawking provided feedback as Intel iterated.

Intel's interface allows Hawking to type twice as fast and to complete common tasks such as browsing, editing, navigating documents and the Web 10x faster.

TechRepublic and ZDNet's Nick Heath attended the London unveiling. He reported:

The system developed for Intel can be split into three parts. The input from the infrared sensor that sits on Hawking's glasses and detects movement of his cheek muscles when Hawking wants to select an item on screen. The interface that selects letters to form words and lets him interact with internet browsers and other software. The software that predicts what Hawking is typing as he selects the letters, similar to autocomplete on modern smartpones.

Being able to compose text is vital for Hawking, both to speak via his synthesiser and also to write his lectures and books. Hawking's previous system pieced together words one at a time, selecting each letter of the alphabet in turn and waited for Hawking to select the correct letter.

Among the key technology points:

  • Hawking's cheek sensor is detected by an infrared switch mounted to his glasses.
  • SwiftKey software integration has improved the systems ability to learn and predict Hawking's next characters. SwiftKey came up with a model to predict the word Hawking is so he only has to type between 15 and 20 percent of the characters.
  • Information from Hawking's speech synthesizer runs though a Windows Lenovo laptop to conduct Web searches. The new system automates mouse movements, search and typing.
  • A toolkit is being developer to suit different users and afflictions. Developers can enable applications that can be controlled by touch, eye blinks and eyebrow movements.
  • Intel made the toolkit free.

What remains to be seen is how developers can take Intel's toolkit and tailor it to other assistive technologies. Hawking's fame along with Intel's scale should at least raise awareness among technologists.