Intel and Stephen Hawking open source assistive computer control system

Could help 3 million disabled people communicate more easily

Intel has worked with Professor Stephen Hawking to develop an open-source solution that could help 3 million people afflicted with Motor Neuron Disease (MND) and quadriplegia communicate and use computers more easily.

Called ACAT (Assistive Context Aware Toolkit), the system took three years to develop and has replaced Hawking's existing system that was developed by Intel 20 years ago.

It has allowed the professor, who is almost entirely paralysed due to an MND-related condition called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), to perform many actions on a computer faster – from communicating with others through a software-based voice synthesiser to navigating emails, documents and the web, as well as performing other common tasks.

Swift action

Hawking controls a computer by using muscle movements in his cheek, which are detected using an infrared sensor mounted on his glasses, to select on-screen text as a cursor hovers over it. According to Intel, it has been drastically improved through the integration of text prediction software Swiftkey, which has doubled the professor's speech rate by adapting to his lexicon.

Hawking explained at the event that his old system was making it "very difficult to communicate effectively and to do the things I love to do."

He added: "With the improvements inside, I am now able to write much faster and it means I can continue to give lectures, write papers and books and, of course, speak with my family and friends more easily. The new system is life-changing for me, and I hope it will serve me well for at least 20 years."

The new toolkit is open source and Intel is hoping that researchers and technologists will be able to use it to create customised solutions operated through touch, eye blinks, eyebrow movements and other inputs for communication.