Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest scientific minds of our time, has long relied on technology to communicate. Now he is trialling a device that may one day convert his thoughts directly into speech.
Stephen Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also know as motor neuron disease. This disease involves the progressive weakening and atrophy of muscles. It leads to an inability to move independently and difficulty with speaking, swallowing and breathing. The 70 year old has been confined to a wheelchair for decades and a computer speaks for him. In spite of this, he has made a number of important advances in modern cosmology and found time to author a number of popular science books.
Since losing his speech in the 1980s, Hawking “speaks” by using a series of cheek twitches to select words on a screen. However, this is a slow process, and as he loses control of his cheek, the need to find another way is becoming more and more important.
Enter Philip Low: founder, chairman and CEO of healthcare company NeuroVigil. Low’s device, called the iBrain, records brain activity from a single point on the scalp. The device makes use of an algorithm to extract useful information from the data gathered. According to NeuroVigil’s website, “the iBrain is a miniature electronics box attached to a light and flexible elastic head harness and electrodes that can effortlessly be applied to the head during sleep.” It has a rechargeable battery and USB port for data transfer.
In a preliminary test of the iBrain’s capabilities, the device was fitted to Hawking’s head and he was asked to “imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball.” While his body has long lost the ability to do this, his motor cortex can still generate electrical waves in his brain. The device was able to identify which movement he was imagining by monitoring this electrical activity.
The dream is that this technology will enable Hawking and others to communicate by using their thoughts and imagination to instruct a computer to generate words on their behalf.
Low presented this work on July 8 at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference in Cambridge, UK. The topic of the conference was “Consciousness in humans and non-human animals.” NeuroVigil has gained publicity through its association with Hawking, but Low stresses that the technology has been developed for everybody. He states that the “mind-mapping” performed by the iBrain is not limited to this particular communication application, but has so many potential uses that Low funded the startup on his own, refusing offers of venture capital.
“I knew that if they funded us they would want to concentrate only on one specific use for the device,” he said. “I didn’t pay myself for three years. I wanted to build a better telescope – one that could be pointed all around the universe.”
With his motorised wheelchair and distinctive computer voice, Stephen Hawking is one of the most iconic figures in modern science. He is the author of A Brief History of Time, which has sold over 10 million copies since its initial publication in 1988.