Changing lives

The woman who rebuilt Stephen Hawking’s ability to communicate

Physicist Stephen Hawking and Intel software engineer Lama Nachman. (Courtesy Intel)

On a recent trip to Australia, Intel senior principal engineer Lama Nachman spoke about how she was asked in 2012 by famed physicist and ALS sufferer Stephen Hawking to improve the way he communicated with the world via his computer. Hawking had been using his old system over a decade. “When he started using that software he could still use a button to interface with the system,” she said. “But over the years with his condition deteriorating, he lost that ability. So one of his assistants ended up building a sensor that sat on his glasses to translate cheek movements into a trigger for the system. This slowed him down quite a bit.”

A combination of a better word prediction system and automating a lot of his functions, meant Nachman’s team was able to speed Hawking’s communications up by a factor of ten.

This year, Intel made the fruits of Nachman’s work — the Assistive Context-Aware Toolbox (ACAT) — freely available online, and within a week of its August release more than 10,000 licenses of the open-source platform were downloaded. The software could revolutionise the lives of thousands of people with severely restricted body movement.

Users can adapt the program to their specific needs, although Nachman noted that Hawking’s computerized voice is unavailable: “Stephen’s voice is IP protected,” she explained. “He really likes the way that it sounds.”

The next step for Nachman is truly astonishing: a brain-computer interface. “If you had zero body movement, you could trigger the ACAT system with brain activity,” Nachman said.

Read the full story at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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