January 22, 2013
For years now, the paralytic conqueror of the cosmos Stephen Hawking has relied on technological gadgetry to serve as the interface between his magnificent mind and the outside world. While a Lou Gehrig-like degenerative disease has slowly eroded his ability to control his own movements for the last five decades, the world-renowned theoretical physicist and pop-science icon has, in a sense, been fortunate. Had he been born a mere twenty years earlier, the brain that first attempted to bridge the cosmological chasm between quantum mechanics and general relativity may have been forever locked away within the confines of a debilitated body.
But as Hawking’s degenerative motor neuron disease has incrementally robbed him of his ability to communicate naturally, the rise of increasingly sophisticated technology has empowered him to continue his work to the benefit of us all. In recent years, however, that technology appears to have plateaued while Professor Hawking’s physical state has all but reached its nadir. With the exception of a few facial muscles that he can still voluntarily twitch, the Cambridge-based cosmologist is now fully paralyzed.
Since the early 2000s, Hawking has relied on an electronic speech-generating device that allows him to use a voluntary cheek twitch to select letters from a screen as a continuously moving cursor as it scrolls through the alphabet. In this manner, letter by letter, word by word, the profoundest thoughts of his lightning-quick mind drip from this cognitive bottleneck at a grueling rate of about one word per minute.
Recently, however, Intel’s chief technology officer Justin Rattner stated he believes that there may be several technologies floating around that could dramatically increase the speed with which Hawking is able to communicate. At last week’s annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Rattner noted that an Intel research team could be on the cusp of a new technology that could improve his word count by up to 5 to 10 words per minute.
A renowned computer scientist in his own right, Rattner says that the technology currently used by Hawking utilizes only one of his voluntary motions; namely, the cheek twitch. But as the Intel CES points out, Hawking can also generate small movements in his eyebrow as well as his mouth, and the incorporation of just one of these additional voluntary muscle responses into his communication technology could dramatically increase the speed with which he can communicate. For instance, utilizing two inputs – say cheek plus eyebrow twitch – instead of just one would allow Hawking to use Morse code rather than a lazily scrolling cursor to spell words. And while this might still be slow by almost any other standard, it would still represent a “great improvement” over the current exasperatingly slow one-word-per-minute pace.
Hawking first teamed up with Intel in the late 1990s in the hopes of developing technology that would allow him to overcome his increasingly severe communication impediments. In the past two years, the 71-year-old cosmologist has again actively sought the assistance of the massive multi-national chip maker as his ability to compose text has further diminished.
After an initial meeting with Hawking in early 2012, Rattner says he was unsure whether the current state of the technology was up to snuff for the professor’s expectations. “Up to now, these technologies didn’t work well enough to satisfy someone like Stephen, who wants to produce a lot of information,” he explained.
Currently, Intel is at work on a system that can combine the physicist’s cheek twitch with his mouth and eyebrow movements to generate more complex input signals for his computer. “We’ve built a new, character-driven interface in modern terms that includes a better word predictor,” said Rattner.
THE FUTURE IS INTUITIVE, ENVIRONMENTALLY AWARE TECHNOLOGY
But that’s not the end of the story. Though still in its nascent research and development stage, the world’s largest chip-making company is also tinkering with an entirely new interface that would rely on sophisticated facial recognition software rather than mechanical muscle movements as inputs.
While Hawking is now entirely reliant on Intel’s technology to express himself, the relationship between the brilliant theoretical physicist and the cutting-edge microprocessor firm is by no means one-sided. The very special case of Professor Hawking’s deteriorating motor skills has provided a salient and urgent catalyst for the company’s broader researcher into smart technology and devices for assisting the elderly and disabled. And Hawking’s rigorous and articulate feedback regarding what works, what doesn’t and why has undoubtedly provided Intel’s R&D department with critical insight into how to move forward with these technologies.
According to Rattner, the key to getting smart technology out of the slump that it’s been in for half a decade is to create gadgets that are able to read the user’s environment in an integrated and intuitive manner. Moving forward, Intel’s work in this field will make use of ‘context aware’ devices that combine a variety of environmental inputs using hardware like cameras, microphones and thermometers. The ambient information gleaned from these devices can then be paired with software that tracks the user’s online activity, personal calendars, social media engagement, etc. to create an intimate, predictive and truly ‘smart’ AI assistant. “We use this [information] to reason your current context and what’s important at any given time [and deliver] pervasive assistance,” Rattner explained.
Mark Weiser – the twentieth-century modern computing trailblazer and long-time chief scientist at Xerox Mark – once said that the best technology “should be invisible, get out of your way, and let you live your life.” According to this philosophy, our gadgets should be quiet, invisible servants – a sort of extension of our subconscious. And this is what Intel is currently aiming at with its smart technology research. Rattner hopes to create devices that help not only the physically disabled but eventually all of us by anticipating our needs and desires at the most basic levels. And if Intel has anything to do with it, he says, “we’ll be emotionally connected with our devices in a few years.”