With the release of the Hollywood movie The Theory of Everything, looking back on the early life of Professor Stephen Hawking, the famed theoretical physicist known for his impressive body of work as well as the fact he lives with the degenerative motor neuron disease. The film reached the UK on January 1st and has been popular so far.
With this renewed interest in Professor Hawking, his work and life, we thought we’d take a closer look at his communication aids and how he is actually able to speak. With no verbal skills remaining, Hawking has used computer technology for speech synthesis for many years and we have discussed previously in our discussion of Klatt’s Last Tape, a BBC Radio documentary that featured Hawking’s daughter and a discussion of his role in the development of speech synthesis. Here we’re taking it a step further and discussing the question in more depth, exactly how does Stephen Hawking talk? Before that we’re taking a little look at Motor Neuron Disease and how it affects those living with it.
What is Motor Neuron Disease?
Trabasaxon Liam with Stephen Hawking
Motor Neuron Disease (MND) is a progressive disease that affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Professor Hawking received his diagnosis aged 21 and there are many individuals living with the disease across the UK and around the world, including our Trabasaxon pal Liam Dwyer (pictured with Hawking) and it’s a disease which there is surprisingly little awareness of.
MND affects different people in different ways. It affects the way individuals walk, talk, eat, drink and breathe but it’s very rare that all the affects come on at once or in any particular order and not all individuals with MND get all symptoms. There is no cure for MND and symptoms are managed on an individual basis, this video shows Liam discussing MND in depth and how he works to raise awareness, using his own speech synthesiser:
Stephen Hawking and MND
As we said, Stephen Hawking received his diagnosis of MND aged 21 and soon began to require crutches to walk before a wheelchair. Stephen Hawking first began using his computer speech synthethiser in the 1980s and although there have been many developments since its first installation, the system remains very similar.
Hawking also uses a wheelchair and requires nursing support due to MND and whilst he originally didn’t want to focus on his disability he began working in the disability sector in the 1990s, providing a role model and an example of what can be achieved, however severe a disability you have. He is committed to the protection of disabled rights and got his family involved in the viral Ice Bucket Challenge in 2013, supporting MND awareness.
How does Stephen Hawking Talk?
Professor Hawking giving a speech at NASA
Now, back to the main issue, since opting for speech synthesis how has Stephen Hawking managed to speak? Hawking doesn’t use text-to-speech or input anything into a keyboard physically so his speech synthesis is entirely based upon facial movements. It’s a revolutionary system which was developed with Hawking in mind but can be adapted for other users with similar needs.
Hawking communicates via a computer system which is mounted to his wheelchair and powered by the same batteries that keep his power chair going. The speech synthesis works through a specific programme called EZ Keys which gives Hawking an on-screen software keyboard. A cursor is present and moves automatically across the keyboard in rows or columns and Hawking is able to select character through moving his cheek to stop the cursor, getting the character he needs.
The technology is extremely advanced yet seems so simple. Hawking’s cheek movements are detected by an infrared switch which is mounted onto his glasses and that single switch is the only connection he has with the computer. EZ Keys has also been developed with word predictive capabilities meaning Hawking often types one or two letters before getting the word he needs, thus speeding up the speech process and making it less laborious than it could be.
To save time Hawking also has a bank of stored sentences and phrases for regular use, helping conversation flow and allowing him to give speeches based on pre-recorded sentences and statements. Hawking has tried other methods of switch to access his speech synthesis including Brain Controlled Interfaces, but the cheek movements are the most consistent and effective for his needs.
This video gives a concise and straightforward explanation of how Stephen Hawking talks, in his own words:
Stephen Hawking’s choice of speech synthesis is completely unique to his needs. Some of the more common speech synthesisers on the market, used regularly by people with a range of different disabilities include the Lightwriter, the Eyegaze Edge and the many software and technology options through CereProc, a company who specialise in text-to-speech and more innovative forms of speech synthesis.
The Theory of Everything
The Theory of Everything received much critical claim and has been a real success, with both the lead actors receiving praise for the sensitivity and genuine portrayal of their roles. The film was made as an adaptation of the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wild Hawking, Hawking’s ex-wife who he is still close to and portrays the period in which Hawking received and tried to manage his diagnosis as well as his ground-breaking work in his field.
I thought the acting and the way Stephen Hawking was played was amazing. Eddie Redmayne played the part so well I thought it was Stephen Hawking. Felicity Jones played Jane great and she showed just what a wife/carer has to go through looking after a person. It was good to hear her side of the story too.
Here is the official film trailer to get a taste for it:
Stephen Hawking’s life and work is remarkable and this new film is a testament to that. It’s also fantastic to see how the developments in speech synthesis that he trials and tests are advancing the science for people in general, providing many more people with the opportunity to speak.
You may be interested in a revealing BBC interview by Jane Hawking about her life as a carer and wife of Steven and her book “Travelling to Infinity” on which the film is based.
Comments on this post from Assistive Technology Professionals:
He ‘talks’ using a voice output communication aid. For more information about them see speech generating devices. The film The Theory of Everything fudges the software he uses, as he uses a scanning technique which generates words at a far slower rate than was seen in the film, and the scanning software was not shown, presumably because the general public might not understand its use. A brilliant film, but it does deviate from the truth somewhat in this regard.
It should also be observed that the system that Stephen Hawking uses is highly personalized, and may not be useful to anyone else on the planet. Hawking is arguably the most brilliant mind living, and, when he could still vocalize to some extent, would compose entire technical papers and books in his head, then dictate them to the one or two assistants who could understand him. His system 1) has his highly idiosyncratic vocabulary in it, and 2) uses abbreviations that he has learned, that most of us probably couldn’t make sense of.
A number of years ago, he spoke at University of Washington, while I was on faculty there. I was not able to attend the talk, but the reports that I heard were that, for his presentation, which was prepared in advance, he communicated at normal speeds. But for the question and answer session, the audience had to wait for him to compose his answers. Because he was Hawking, they would wait, but it was very slow.
All of your comments are accurate. This is always a constant debate in the AT world. The AAC device that he uses is specific to him. As is all aac devices should. Be because every persons voice is unique to them. There are a plethora of devices out there, one size does not fit all.