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Glimpse of Stephen Hawking's Computer 146

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the long-live-dectalk dept.
kenekaplan writes "Intel application engineer Travis Bonifield has been working closely with Hawking to communicate with the world for a decade. He's traveled from the United States to England every few years to hand-deliver Hawking a customized PC. Bonifield talks about the technology that powers the customized system." Hawking's latest machine is a Thinkpad x220. Lately he's been trouble speaking due to weakened cheek muscles (down to one word per minute). New Scientist has a brief interview with Hawking's outgoing technician on the challenges he faced. It turns out Hawking is still using a DECtalk (despite some reports suggesting otherwise).
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Glimpse of Stephen Hawking's Computer

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  • DECtalk (Score:5, Funny)

    by Sockatume (732728) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @06:23AM (#38648966)

    With a cat for scale. That's it, Wikipedia, we're through.

  • by Viol8 (599362) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @06:25AM (#38648980)

    So why the surprise that he still uses the DECTalk?

    In this case if it is broke then someone probably will fix it.

    • by Nick Fel (1320709) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @06:34AM (#38649026)
      But I've never understood why the DECTalk voice can't be replicated in software. There must be someone capable and willing to do it for the publicity.
      • by HyperDrive (985043) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @06:53AM (#38649096)
        MESS [mess.org] has preliminary support for emulating the DECTalk.
      • It does have a software version. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DECtalk [wikipedia.org]
      • by Joce640k (829181) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @07:06AM (#38649178) Homepage

        I read an article where he said he takes the robotic voice very personally, he regards it as his voice.

        He's a geek so wants the real thing, not some stupid software emulation. What's the fun of a wheelchair if you can't strap loads of wires and circuit boards to it?

        • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @08:48AM (#38649602)

          I read an article where he said he takes the robotic voice very personally, he regards it as his voice.

          He's a geek so wants the real thing, not some stupid software emulation.

          The first thing that instantly struck me is its rather like women and their rack. Some fraction love the idea of an upgrade, some hate the idea of an upgrade, but the feature that makes it most like the female chest situation is that Everybody Seems to Have A Strong Opinion about what upgrade strategy, if any, is best, and all the women I've talked to about that topic pretty much want all the folks with opinions one way or another to F off and when they want an opinion they'll darn well ask for it first.

          The other interesting thing Ive not considered is the legal / financial / employment minefield of whoever is the "new voice of Hawking" is absolutely going to advertise that, and he might not be cool with getting into that whole scene. So on one hand he should get money, on the other hand he doesn't need money, on the other hand the money would be coming from his fellow sufferers so that would make him a jerk, on the other hand he could donate his endorsement money to a charity, but what if the device he signs the contract for sucks and he wants to switch back, but if he doesn't sign an endorsement contract he's basically pulling money out of a charity, I can see a guy just saying F-it forget about the whole topic now back to black hole thermodynamics.

          The final part is /. and IT in general are populated by noobs who think nothing of upgrading because they've only been in the game 2 years so whats one upgrade during an entire lifetime? But he's pretty much in it for life, and I know from personal experience that when you can skip upgrade cycles, you're best off doing so if at all possible. Sometimes not possible. At work I do not scrap the old gear and spec out an entirely new amplifier line solely because one corporation released one new microwave RF transistor today (and someone will release another next week, repeat into the indefinite future). I can totally see the guy saying there is no point in upgrading every time something new is released and therefore living life as a perma-noob, especially if the performance gain is minor. I'm sure the world would rather have him thinking about physics than endlessly re-learning this months new synth release.

          • by ae1294 (1547521)

            I can see a guy just saying F-it forget about the whole topic now back to black hole thermodynamics.

            Why does everything have to go back to GOATSE with you people?

        • What's the fun of a wheelchair if you can't strap loads of wires and circuit boards to it?

          Bashing in to people, then waiting for them to apologise. That must be a giggle.

        • by mwvdlee (775178) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @09:03AM (#38649696) Homepage

          Actually, that statement says nothing about whether he's a geek or not. It only states he does not want the voice changed; i.e. the audio coming out of some speaker. He says nothing about what hardware of software that should be used.
          Judging from his attitude towards switching control mechanisms, I'd say he's anything but a nerd; he seems to prefer stability/reliability above all else. Logical, considering without controls, he's effectively a vegetable.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Yes it *could* be replaced with software. Probably sound exactly the same. However think about this.

        You buy a bit of kit for say 4500 in 1980ish. It works does exactly what you want (it talks). You know exactly how to use it. It integrates into your system. It may have bugs but you know how to work around them. It is a sunk cost with both time and money.

        Now lets upgrade.

        You buy another bit of kit for say 500.. It works does exactly what you want (it talks). You need to relearn how to use it (probab

        • by drfreak (303147)

          Agreed. What Mr Hawing (Sir Hawking, would be more appropriate because I think he should be knighted if not already) needs is a solid system which conforms to his needs. This is a person who cares not what the age is of the technology, he just needs it to work.

          Although Mr Hawking has special needs I think those of us who are developers (me included) need to consider what he has gained and lost in certain upgrades and pass the results of studying that on to our own users. Sure, we don't need to support users

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      It's obsolete because it's clearly not an iPhone.

  • One word a minute (Score:5, Insightful)

    by EponymousCustard (1442693) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @06:31AM (#38649012)
    And twitter users think they have problems with 140 characters.

    At one word a minute, you get to really think about what you are gonna say.

    • It seems odd that there aren't some brain-computer interfaces that would allow better performance than that.
      • Re:One word a minute (Score:5, Informative)

        by Luckyo (1726890) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @07:01AM (#38649154)

        There are, but if you read the article, his problem is learning curve and the fact that if he's disconnected from the working machine and something is wrong, he can't call for help.

        I really suggest reading the articles linked. They are far more interesting then average stuff you get on slashdot and it answers a lot of questions as to "why is he still using this dated stuff". Especially the part that notes that when someone pitching a new system is in the room, Hawking's talking speed goes up because of his competitiveness and stubbornness.

    • lol, rofl, omg, ...
  • by assemblerex (1275164) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @06:33AM (#38649024)
    Why the Dectalk hate? It served the world well for many many years and will for a lot longer than most people think.
    • by DarkOx (621550)

      What hate? I don't see any hate. Nobody has posted anything negative about DECTalk. I don't think asking why someone uses a 30 year old electronic device when newer and therefore likely more capable options exist is hate. Actually I'd be really interested to hear some reasons. Are the technical considerations as well as peference here? Does DECTalk posses some unique quality that is not easily replicated?

      • by ciderbrew (1860166) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @06:55AM (#38649120)
        Maybe he want to keep using it as it is now *his* voice. Beyond any technical issue, that bit of kit is synonymous with him and he doesn't want it replaced upgraded or changed.
      • by Joce640k (829181)

        He regards it as HIS voice.

        Would you want somebody to replace your voice with 'something a bit more more modern'?

        • by martin-boundary (547041) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @07:32AM (#38649304)
          I could totally see Hawking with the voice of HAL 9000.

          Student: What if I integrate this term on the left here?

          Hawking: I'm afraid you can't do that, Dave.

        • He regards it as HIS voice.

          Would you want somebody to replace your voice with 'something a bit more more modern'?

          If it allows me to communicate at a significantly higher speed than earlier, then maybe.

          • by Lumpy (12016)

            Oh hell yes,

            I want http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapp_Brannigan [wikipedia.org] as my voice.

            Or to sound like the movie phone guy all the time.

          • There are three parts to the system, the controller (which has changed several times as his ALS has progressed), the interface which he is used to and can operate easily, and does much more than speech (it controls the chair, his home, Voip phone etc...) and the speech synthesiser which seems to be in two parts (software which is up to date, and the voice generator which is still the old hardware)

            Updating the speech synth is impossible without changing the voice

            the interface software is old, but he is use

        • by gman003 (1693318)

          Would you want somebody to replace your voice with 'something a bit more more modern'?

          Yes, please.

        • by drfreak (303147)

          Totally. Sean Connery with a dash of Dwane "The Rock" Johnson, please; that is my first request. Next, I'd like the ability to choose or mix voices as the mood arises. Arnold as The Terminator also comes to mind. Imagine if you could change voices on the fly... "F*** you, a**hole!" I'd personally put that on my answering machine for blocked CID numbers.

      • Wrong question (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Viol8 (599362) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @06:58AM (#38649134)

        "asking why someone uses a 30 year old electronic device when newer and therefore likely more capable options exist"

        You should be asking - why someone WOULDN'T use a 30 year old device when it does everything they need it to do. Not everyone thinks upgrading for the sake of it is a worthwhile pursuit especially if its as critical as your only means to communicate.

        • Re:Wrong question (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @08:37AM (#38649552) Homepage

          From my experience.. the 30 year old device is built better, higher quality and will continue to operate for another 50 years. Unlike the utter crap that is available today that you will be lucky to keep working for 5 years.

          • From my experience.. the 30 year old device is built better, higher quality and will continue to operate for another 50 years. Unlike the utter crap that is available today that you will be lucky to keep working for 5 years.

            Confirmation bias ahoy!

            There was *plenty* of crappy hardware back in the 70s/80s. It's just that the crappy stuff never lasted long enough for geeks like you and I to get all nostalgic about it.

          • by giorgist (1208992)
            A 30 year old working device has gone through the natural selection and survived. There is a scrap heap somewhere of devices that where made 30 years ago that didn't last a week.

            Modern devices are a lot more reliable, but picking the 30 year survivor in it's first month is not very easy.
        • by c6gunner (950153)

          You should be asking - why someone WOULDN'T use a 30 year old device when it does everything they need it to do.

          Talk about an unstated major premise!

          "I don't get why you want to replace your beowulf cluster of Commodore 64's when they do everything you need them to do!"

      • by Anonymous Coward

        I just heard a podcast the other day, NPR's "Fresh Air", with author Kitty Ferguson about her new Stephen Hawking biography, "An Unfettered Mind". She supposedly spent a lot of personal time with him writing this book and says that it's mainly him being resistant to change, and insisting on not being helped during conversation, for example. One word per minute seems awful limiting, as does having to have someone push you everywhere in your wheelchair, which he had to do after being reduced to the one cheek

        • by ae1294 (1547521)

          You know I think we are forgetting that the guy is 70! What guy that age is happy about anything new.

      • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @07:02AM (#38649162) Homepage Journal

        Does DECTalk posses some unique quality that is not easily replicated?

        It is Hawkings voice.

      • According to the Wikipedia article linked, he identifies with its "voice", having used it for over 20 years. I can understand that, I would certainly be uncomfortable with an "upgrade" changing my voice to someone else's. Of course you could replicate the voice in a new machine, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it, I guess.
      • by Lumpy (12016)

        the DEC talk is easily replicated. AT&T 's voice project has a version that sounds identical to a DEC talk.

        It's called, when you have a genius that wants what he wants, you give him what he wants.

  • by Rik Sweeney (471717) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @07:24AM (#38649264) Homepage

    Lately he's been trouble speaking due to weakened cheek muscles (down to one word per minute).

    I see Slashdot's come up with a simple solution that just involves skipping words that don't seem necessary :)

    • Slashdot's ultimate goal is to have every summary be one word. It's a tribute to Hawking.

      • by gman003 (1693318)

        Tommorows headlines:
        Politics
        Microsoft
        iPad
        China
        Nuclear
        Cat

        Arguments in comment threads will continue much as they have, since few people read even the summary before wading into the flamewars. The only complaint they'll have tomorrow is not knowing whether to argue about nuclear power, or nuclear weapons, in the "Nuclear" story.

  • by Framboise (521772) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @07:48AM (#38649380)

    From the Telegraph link, we happily learn:

    In an interview with the New Scientist magazine to mark his 70th birthday on Sunday, January 8, he was asked: "What do you think most about during the day?" to which he replied: "Women. They are a complete mystery."

    • by vlm (69642)

      This opens up a million (bad) quantum mechanics Heisenberg Uncertainty principle jokes.
      Women, either you're drunk, or they don't make any sense, never both at the same time (which is closer to a pauli exclusionary principle joke I guess)
      or
      something to do with their emotional state being an unknown quantity until the wavefunction collapses?

      In Hawkings honor, any black hole thermodynamics jokes? I'm thinking something along the lines of every time a male makes a mistake that information never escapes past th

    • Most bad comment made by Hawking at my sense. Lack of imagination and originality in this very used bad macho joke. But I guess everyone is supposed to find it cute since it's from Hawking.
  • Why does this story have the digital flag on it? Yeah, it involves DECTalk, but that's all it takes to make it about DEC? Had the story been DEC centric and about various DEC technologies, such as VAX, OpenVMS, Alpha, DECNET, Clustering or PDP, then I'd agree, and there could be an interesting (depending on one's POV) discussion about it. But since none of that is involved here, except DECTalk, how does that alone make this a story about DEC?
    • by vlm (69642)

      your alternative is what, put the Apple flag on it?

      • by unixisc (2429386)
        No, given what the story was, use whatever flags are used for Science, Thinkpad or Hardware. Preferably the first 2. Not Digital or Intel - the technologies that he uses aren't Intel-centric either, such as Paragon or Itanium. Simply using an off the shelf laptop like Thinkpad doesn't by itself make it an Intel story.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I have often wondered whether Hawkins has ever tried using dasher.

    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher/

    Occurs to me it is ideal for people with very little or no physical mobility

    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher/SpecialNeeds.html

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d6yIquOKQ0

    Just a thought....

    • by mwvdlee (775178)

      As I understand it, Hawking is limited to a single muscle effectively acting as a boolean switch.
      Dasher, cool as it may be, requires more interaction than that.
      I've tried Dasher years ago; the speed you can achieve is suprisingly high with a very short learning curve. Though I've never seen a practical application of it; it seems more like a proof-of-concept than an actual usable product.

  • by Tokolosh (1256448) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @08:53AM (#38649634)

    What does he do when US Customs decides to take his computer for a year of analysis? How the hell does he get by the TSA? Or is he just one of many influential people who avoid traveling to the USA?

    • What does he do when US Customs decides to take his computer for a year of analysis? How the hell does he get by the TSA? Or is he just one of many influential people who avoid traveling to the USA?

      Considering who he is, he could probably go about anywhere provided he is physically able,
      and, i seem to remember an article here in the past few days of him floating in a space sim of some sort.

      Usually this executive treatment in society sincerely pisses me off, but all things considered, provided
      he doesn't go senile in his old age, i can't say i mind it.

      My opinion.

    • by ae1294 (1547521)

      What does he do when US Customs decides to take his computer for a year of analysis? How the hell does he get by the TSA? Or is he just one of many influential people who avoid traveling to the USA?

      They think he is their robotic overlord.

    • by MiniMike (234881)

      Isn't it attached to his wheelchair? They would have to take both. I could just see them (stereotypical TSA goons) wheeling him to the curb on a rental luggage cart, then dumping him next to the bus lane for the 25 cent refund. Have they done that to anyone yet?

    • Re:US Customs, TSA (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Amouth (879122) on Tuesday January 10, 2012 @11:09AM (#38650964)

      Simple - don't fly on the mass transit passenger planes.. Private charter planes do not have to go through TSA check points.. So the real rich and government guys never even experience it..

    • by c6gunner (950153)

      What does he do when US Customs decides to take his computer for a year of analysis?

      Probably the same thing he does when a meteor hits his house. Nothing, since it's so rare that it's unlikely to happen in the average persons lifetime.

  • The article says the company that made the synth is out of business, yet the wikipedia entry for DECtalk links to the company that owns the rights, and it looks like they still make an RT available for linux:
    http://www.speechfxinc.com/dectalk_linux.php [speechfxinc.com]

  • ...about Stephen Hawking's personal life in two [slashdot.org] weeks [slashdot.org]. Not that he isn't a fascinating man, but with this much coverage I have to wonder if he's hired a new PR guy or something...
  • Has no one thought to give him an emotiv? It seems like he could even map out each letter or even words with one of those. http://emotiv.com/ [emotiv.com]
  • Of those who read the article and watched the youtube videos (a small percentage, I know), was I the only one who was slightly disappointed to see the windows 7 logo come up on the screen when they turned it on?
  • If a monkey can control a robotic arm with 7 degrees of freedom http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnWSah4RD2E [youtube.com]
    http://singularityhub.com/2010/06/12/monkey-controls-robot-arm-with-7-degrees-of-freedom-video/ [singularityhub.com]
    http://www.physorg.com/news194796581.html [physorg.com]
    you would think a brain implant would be a useful thing at this point for him. Yes it is a risk, but really, wouldn't it be worth it?

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