My Computer Is My Voice
Brilliant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking explains how his computer gave him a voice when ALS took his own. In 1963, Stephen Hawking contracted motor neurone disease (ALS) and was given two years to live. Yet he went on to Cambridge to become a brilliant researcher. From 1979 to 2009, he held the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, the chair held by Isaac Newton in 1663. Professor Hawking has over a dozen honorary degrees and was awarded the CBE in 1982 by the Queen of England. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Science. Stephen Hawking is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. In 2014, the blockbuster movie “The Theory of Everything,” starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, took a look at the relationship between the famous physicist and his wife. Today, at age 73, Hawking’s brilliance is unwavering – quite a remarkable victory over the condition so deadly for most. Professor Hawking continues his lectures and communications through a computer device that translates his keystrokes into audible speech…he controls the computer with his cheek movements. He shared details about his computer system that may help others dealing with ALS communicate easier…
Since 1997, my computer-based communication system has been sponsored and provided by Intel® Corporation. A tablet computer mounted on the arm of my wheelchair is powered by my wheelchair batteries, although the tablet’s internal battery will keep the computer running if necessary.
My main interface to the computer is through a program called EZ Keys, written by Words Plus Inc. This provides a software keyboard on the screen. A cursor automatically scans across this keyboard by row or by column. I can select a character by moving my cheek to stop the cursor. My cheek movement is detected by an infrared switch that is mounted on my spectacles. This switch is my only interface with the computer. EZ Keys includes a word prediction algorithm, so I usually only have to type the first couple of characters before I can select the whole word. When I have built up a sentence, I can send it to my speech synthesizer. I use a separate hardware synthesizer, made by Speech+. It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish.
Through EZ Keys, I can also control the mouse in Windows. This allows me to operate my whole computer. I can check my email using the Eudora email client, surf the Internet using Firefox, or write lectures using Notepad. My latest computer from Intel, based on an Intel® Core™ i7 Processor and Intel® Solid-State Drive 520 Series, also contains a webcam which I use with Skype to keep in touch with my friends. I can express a lot through my facial expressions to those who know me well.
I can also give lectures. I write the lecture beforehand and save it on disk. I can then send it to the speech synthesizer a sentence at a time using the Equalizer software written by Words Plus. It works quite well and I can try out the lecture and polish it before I give it.
I keep looking into new assistive technologies, and recently Intel® has sponsored a team of its engineers to design a new facial recognition system aimed at improving my communication speed. They also have some new ideas regarding my software interface and it will be interesting to see the results of this. It looks quite promising. I have also experimented with Brain Controlled Interfaces to communicate with my computer, however, as yet, these don’t work as consistently as my cheek-operated switch.
Books By Stephen Hawking
Professor Hawking has published many books tackling the fundamental questions about the universe and our existence. For information about these and other books, visit Stephen Hawking’s Web site, go to www.hawking.org.uk.