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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Stephen Hawking, Luddite

Many dislike changing their communications technology. Hawking is among them.

  • January 5, 2012

With the evolution of smartphones and applications like Skype, we’ve all changed the way we transmit our voice over the last decades–some more eagerly than others. The problem of voice is a very special one, though, for the iconic physicist Stephen Hawking, whose motor neurone disease has long made him dependent on voice synthesizing technology.

The New Scientist’s Catherine de Lange has a fascinating interview with Sam Blackburn, the man who has been in charge of the great physicist’s voice for the last five years (Blackburn recently decided to resign his post). Among the revelations: that one of our foremost minds in physics can be as irritated by technological change as the rest of us. “Steven has a stubborn attitude towards this sort of thing. He feels that he has to prove he can still use his existing system,” Blackburn tells de Lange.

I saw Hawking speak in 2010 at the World Science Festival. Like many who had only been exposed to Hawking through TV beforehand, I was surprised by the length of time it took for Hawking to compose a sentence in time for it to be spoken by his voice synthesizer. Blackburn reveals that the problem is actually growing worse; Hawking’s facial muscles are the only ones that he can control well, but “those are fading too, unfortunately.” As a result, explains Blackburn, the system has slowed to a crawl, and it takes Hawking about a minute to compose a single word. Blackburn and Hawking have mulled other ideas–eye-tracking, brain scanning, and so forth–but Hawking is somewhat reluctant. He has nixed brain surgery or head-shaving.

Hawking doesn’t dislike all technology, of course (it’s a bit of playful overstatement on my part to call him a “Luddite”). According to a 2010 BBC interview with Blackburn, Hawking was even an early adopter of email. Blackburn also revealed in that interview that Hawking hates it when you complete his sentences for him: “If he is halfway through saying something and it’s taking ages, the urge to guess what he is saying is overwhelming. Sometimes you get it right and it saves about five minutes, and sometimes you get it wrong and it just irritates him.”

Interestingly, Hawking’s voice is itself contingent to a particular moment in technology; he might easily shift his voice to something less robotic sounding, but he has come to be identified with the voice we all know well. “[I]t wouldn’t be Stephen’s voice any more,” as Blackburn puts it, if he were to update it.

The reason why Hawking is particularly circumspect about altering his voice technology is that it could open a sort of vicious circle; as Blackburn puts it: “incremental improvement is much easier for him to accept than a radical new system, because the learning curve associated with that is very steep. Stephen wouldn’t be able to ask for help because the very thing he wouldn’t be able to use would be the speech system.”

The whole interview is a great read, so click through. It’s a perspective-giving reminder, too, for the next time you fret over your iPhone-or-Android decision. For Hawking and those who suffer from similar ailments, the choices they face regarding communications technology are far more fraught.

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