Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the widely known and respected physicists of our time has been in the news for some time for the way he articulates his thought provoking speeches. While Professor Hawking, 73 is one of the smartest that our planet has to offer, he suffers from a debilitating disease, a Motor Neuron Disease by name Leu Gehrig’s Disease which has virtually paralyzed him, kept him confined to a wheelchair and also impaired his speech.
It was sometime back that Intel had helped Hawking with a “voice” – a software and a device, which is being used by Hawking to “speak” to the world. Intel developed a tool called Assistive Context Awareness Tool (ACAT), and made it available for Hawking to use effectively. The Software interprets visual signals and translates them into words which are “voiced” by the machine. The device in case of Hawking is so designed that his cheek sensor is able to sync with a switch on his glasses, thereby he is able to select characters that he wants to type. This in turn is processed by his speech synthesizer and is spoken out from his laptop. Essentially, this system consists of three components:
- An infrared sensor or webcam that acts as an input and detects facial movements
- An interface which selects letters and form words
- An autocomplete-like software used to predict what user types.
Its virtual keyboard can also be used to browse the internet and select and utilize different programs.
Hawking also got an upgrade to ACAT last year making it more efficient, i.e. allowing Hawking to type faster, browse the internet much easier and seamlessly switch between tasks. It also offered a few predictive type of features as available in iPhone, allowing the software to guess what Hawking was going to say.
While this Software was developed specifically for Hawking, it was being used by others suffering from Motor Neuron Disease (MND). Intel has now announced release of the Speech Software for free on the internet. By releasing this software, Intel hopes that ACAT, which can run on any Windows Operating System – Microsoft Windows 7.0 and above, would be used by researchers and scientists developing new interfaces for the sufferers of such diseases like ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), i.e Lou Gehrig’s disease and other disabilities.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease which affects nerve cells or neurons in the spinal cord and brain. Since the areas of neurons in the brain and spinal cord degenerates, it results in hardening or sclerosis of the region, eventually leading to death of the neurons. This in turn results in the loss of ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movements, thereby people may lose the ability to eat, move, speak and even breathe. ALS usually affects people aged between 40 and 70 years, and approximately, 20,000 Americans are having the disease today at a given time.
This release by Intel is therefore very interesting and useful for the world of research and is likely to be a boon for those affected by this disease. The full source code for this program has been published by Intel in the Code-sharing site GitHub. Users would be now able to use the open source software and build a machine similar to that Hawking used.
The MND Association of UK has praised this openness exhibited. Karen Pearce, Director of Care for the MND Association in a statement said, “Helping maintain communication for someone with MND could be as simple as using a pen and paper. But as the disease progresses people often lose the use of their hands too. That’s when cutting edge Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC aids can help but it’s vital speech and language therapists look at the best options for families. It will be exciting to see how this open source approach works.”
However, there are a few concerns as well with regards to usage of ACAT:
- It does not work on Macintosh Operating System, the proprietary OS from Apple, and therefore, for the time being, users using such systems would be deprived of using this interesting technology, unless they plan to move to Microsoft.
- ACAT is not for the ordinary user or an average user. Intel is currently working with end users and patients to test the system thoroughly and improve upon features.
Releasing the code by Intel to the general public is likely to help with a new dynamism into its development and improvement with external developers collaborating on it. This would foster inventions and innovations which would in general help those who have different debilitating diseases. In order to develop assistive healthcare technologies, this would bring in economies of scale, and reduce any scope of reinventing the wheel for a work already done. However, this would also require guiding organizations or associations which need to focus on developing this further. Whether Intel would take the lead, or leave it to other Open Source organizations to champion such a cause is not clear at this moment.