The tech that allowed Stephen Hawking to communicate his ideas with the world

As we mourn the loss of the man, let’s take a look at the technology that empowered him to share his genius theories with the public.

March 15, 2018

Early Wednesday morning, the world lost one of the greatest physicists of the modern era.

For more than 5 decades, Stephen Hawking, 76, battled ALS — a neurological disease that gradually immobilized his entire body and rendered him speechless. That is, until a computer gave him his voice back.

Early efforts

Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in 1963, at the age of 21, and was given 2 years to live. He overcame the odds — but by the late ’70s, his ability to speak waned, and by 1985, it ceased altogether.

For years he used a program called the “Equalizer,” which allowed him to use a hand switch to select letters, words, and phrases from a computer screen, which would then be fed through a speech synthesizer aloud.

This new method enabled him to speak up to 15 words per minute — then Hawking lost the ability to use his hands.

Pour one out for the cheeky physicist 

In the mid-2000s, Hawking used a “cheek switch,” which utilized infrared beams to detect tiny movements in his facial muscles. But with this method, he could only speak at a rate of 2 words per minute.

In 2011, he moved onto a new user interface called ACAT, developed by Intel, that provided Hawking with various shortcuts to speak. Another company, SwiftKey, integrated predictive typing into his rig, which allowed him to select words after typing one or two letters.

Without these developments, the world may have never had access to Stephen Hawking’s brilliant mind.

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