Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Interview With Stephen Hawking's Computer Builder

Posted by Tom Foremski - April 25, 2012

(Stephen Hawking's support team: Travis Bonifield (from left to right top row), Rob Weatherly, IT support; Sam Blackburn, graduate assistant.)

By Intel Free Press

British scientist Stephen Hawking celebrated his 70th birthday early this year, and continues to work on ground breaking theories in cosmology. Because of his severe motor neuron disease, he depends heavily on the latest computer technologies to help him communicate with others.

Intel application engineer Travis Bonifield has been working closely with Mr Hawking for more than a decade, building PCs customized for his needs.

Mr Bonifield talks about the technology that powers the customized systems and how Intel co-founder Gordon Moore persuaded Mr Hawking to switch from AMD to Intel.

How did you come to be the guy who helps Stephen Hawking?

Another engineer who was already working on this project transitioned it over to me back in 2001, and I've been running with it ever since. It's not my full-time job. I'm an application engineer supporting mobile and desktop chipsets.

What technology does Stephen use?

The computer is made up of three parts: a Lenovo X220 tablet PC, a custom black box containing various peripherals and the hardware voice itself. The computer features an Intel Core i7 processor along with a forward-facing webcam, which Stephen uses to place phone calls using Skype.

Underneath the wheelchair is the black box, which contains an audio amplifier, voltage regulators and a USB hardware key that receives the input from the IR sensor on Stephen's eyeglasses. The hardware voice synthesizer sits in another black box on the back of the chair and receives commands from the computer via a USB-based serial port.

How does Stephen control what comes out of his voice synthesizer?

When I first met Stephen, he still had some use in his thumbs. In fact, he'd still attempt to drive his own wheelchair. He pinned me against the wall once [laughs]. He had basically a clicker, a binary switch that he held in his hand. He'd press it with his thumb to highlight the words or commands on the computer screen. He was typing at about one word per minute when I first met him. He was actually pretty snappy with it.

Over time the nerve that allowed him to move his thumbs degraded, and he had to find another way to communicate. They originally talked about using one of his pectoral muscles and putting a sensor there. He wasn't too thrilled with that idea.

What he's got now is an infrared sensor hanging off of his glasses. It basically detects the changes in light as he twitches his cheek. They call it the "cheek switch."

Could technology help speed up his word output?

Stephen sent a letter to [Intel co-founder] Gordon Mooreseveral months ago in which he said, "My speech input is very, very slow these days. Is there any way Intel could help?"

Since that time, we've gotten a couple of groups at Intel involved with looking at what can be done to help Stephen. This is still very early on. XTL, the Experience Technology Lab, is looking at facial recognition software to try to come up with some sort of a new input method for Stephen that would be quicker than what he's currently using.

(Travis Bonifield holds a replica of the custom PC he recently created for Stephen Hawking.)

Did Intel's involvement result directly from conversations between Gordon Moore and Stephen Hawking?

Stephen and Gordon met at a conference around 1997. Gordon noted that Stephen was using an AMD machine. Gordon asked Stephen, "Would you like to use an Intel computer moving forward? We'd be happy to build that for you and support it."

Stephen said yes, and we've been building these custom PCs for him ever since. We've done an average of one every 2 years or so.

Was this year's deployment a success?

The interesting thing around this time is all the hardware work was finished within a few hours on the first day. It's configuring all the software that really took a long time. I think that's due to some customizations that Stephen's assistant has made in recent years.

This is also the fastest computer we've ever deployed to Stephen. We found out that when you turn on the computer, it's supposed to basically come up with all his applications and programs and his Words+ speech synthesizer software right from the get-go. But what we were finding out is that it would start all those applications so fast that it didn't have time to initialize the hardware devices yet.

So his voice application would be started, but the security key for the voice application wouldn't be initialized yet. We actually had to put some startup delays in and make it wait 5 seconds so that the hardware devices could finish being initialized by the time the CPU started running all those applications.

Who provides tech support if his computer has problems?

Robert Weatherly in the Intel U.K. office. He's the feet on the ground, a couple hours' drive away.


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