Golden Globe-nominated star of “The Theory of Everything” visits Intel to test Hawking’s communication technology, which has the potential to improve lives of disabled people around the world.
Eddie Redmayne, a London-based actor who plays renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in the new movie “The Theory of Everything,” took time out of his recent press tour to get smart about technology in Silicon Valley. The movie was complete, but Redmayne hungered for better understanding of essential aspects influencing the physicist’s life.
Despite Hawking’s astonishing ability to calculate complicated physics equations in his head, he has grown reliant on a modified computer fitted with an infrared (IR) sensor that translates his cheek and eyebrow movements into letters and numbers.
This computer, which allows him to communicate with the world, was recently upgraded by a team at Intel.
“These people are among the most interesting I’ve ever met,” Redmayne said to USA Today tech reporter Jon Swartz while pointing to a pair of researchers at Intel Labs in Santa Clara.
The Tony Award winner may be best known for his screen performances in “Les Miserables” (2012) and “My Week with Marilyn” (2011), but many see Redmayne’s lead role in “The Theory of Everything” as a breakout for his career. His performance has won him SAG and Golden Globes nominations.
To prepare for the role of young Hawking, who today is 72, Redmayne voraciously read scientific works such as “Brief History of Time” and the romance-filled memoir of Jane Hawking, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.”
“There’s a great love story,” he told Lama Nachman and Horst Haussecker, Intel Labs researchers who have spent that past several years helping refine the technology Hawking relies on to speak.
“We find that even if you don’t have the science or the interest and fascination with Stephen Hawking, a lot of people are gravitating to the romance of the film,” said Redmayne.
Learning the intricacies of Hawking’s theories was daunting.
“I’m an actor,” Redmayne said. “I gave up science when I was about 14. I’m the most technologically illiterate person in the world.”
He devoted time to meet with more than three dozen people living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)-related diseases. Between five and 10 of every 100,000 people in the world develop ALS each year.
Motor neuron disease (MND), which is deteriorating Hawking’s voluntary muscle activities for speaking, walking, swallowing and body movement, has slowed the physicist’s ability to communicate to one word per minute.
Redmayne came to Intel after he learned that Hawking was getting an upgrade to the computer system he uses to communicate. He wanted to meet the people behind the technology.
“I started working on this just over three years ago,” said Nachman, principal engineer at User Experience Research at Intel Labs.
The original relationship started a few decades ago, when Intel co-founder Gordon Moore saw that Hawking wasn’t actually using an Intel-powered machine. Gordon suggested that he use Intel technology.
“We’ve continued to support him through the years,” said Nachman.
“Every couple of years we’ve given him a new machine with the latest technology and then set it up exactly with his same software and everything.”
Nachman, after Redmayne’s visit, pointed out something that Pete Denman, the user experience designer from Intel working on the project, once said. Denman had no idea of the struggles Hawking went through until he saw for himself.
“Watching Stephen, even four-times faster than his previous speed, it still took more than 10 minutes to resize and position a window so he could read it,” said Denman via email.
If Nachman, Haussecker and their team of engineers could build a new assistive system from scratch, it would probably look very different than the one Hawking uses today. They told Redmayne that others tried electroencephalogram (EEG) approaches, which translates brain activity into simple commands, but Hawking didn’t like it.
“We did try eye tracking and found it did not work for Stephen,” said Haussecker.
They investigated using BCI (brain-computer interface) with Hawking’s interface, but that “didn’t pan out,” said Nachman. “He had issues with the interface,” she said. “He actually joked that his carers thought it didn’t work on him because he didn’t have any brain waves.”
A big challenge, according to Haussecker, was this that Hawking didn’t want a completely new system.
“He had been using that system for two decades,” said Haussecker. “He got so used to the subtleties, even the failures of that system. He could overcome those, much like when you’re playing a game and something’s not working well, you just compensate for it. He has become so good at it that he predicted when the system would fail, down to milliseconds.”
Sai Prasad, Pete Denman and Nachman from Intel Labs worked closely with Hawking to create a made-to-order, enhanced version of his original system. It resulted in doubling Hawking’s rate of speech and improved his ability to perform common computing tasks by about 10 times.
In addition to the user interface system, Sangita Sharma, Yi Wu, and Oscar Nestares from Intel Labs developed a facial recognition system to replace Hawking’s existing sensor technology. Alex Nguyen and Alexnader Zaplatin developed a new infrared sensor board to detect his cheek movements.
Nachman pointed out that Prasad, who developed most of the software that was actually released to Hawking, can account to nearly 60 iterations to get to the final version of software currently used.
“The requirements came from observing him using his existing system, understanding the pain points and getting feedback from Stephen,” said Prasad, in an email after Redmayne’s visit. “The new system was built by phasing in features incrementally through each iteration. It’s funny how Stephen would find bugs or run into issues. We would jokingly refer to him as our ‘validation engineer.’”
Haussecker laughs at the irony this experience has brought to his career.
“I studied physics and wanted to go into cosmology,” he said. “Through twists and turns, my career has led me to imaging and computer vision, and now I’m doing this. I told him [Hawking] when I first met him that it might just be the case that by helping him, I contribute more to cosmology than if I had become cosmologist.”
Redmayne recalled his first meeting with Hawking. “I was so nervous that I literally spewed forth information about him to him for about 40 minutes,” he said.
“I was calling him professor. To stop me in my tracks, he said, after a long pause, ‘Call me Stephen.’”
“I went on saying, ‘Of course, Stephen, you were born on Galileo’s birthday, the 8th of January. I was actually born on the 6th of January, so we’re both Capricorns.’”
With that, Hawking went to his screen and about eight minutes later Redmayne was hit by Hawking’s iconic voice: “I am an astronomer, not an astrologist.”
“I was like, Stephen Hawking thinks that the guy playing him [on screen] thinks that he writes horoscopes.”
Redmayne, Nachman and Haussecker talked about how Hawking is fiercely independent. That determination is shared by others living with similar diseases. Nachman said the system they created for Hawking will be released to developers in early 2015.
“We’re taking it to open source to allow different researchers to innovate in their different areas,” she said, adding that it will spread faster to people all around the world.
“The system that we’ve built is very constrained with his existing interaction mechanism, but we’ve built it in a way where you could take a completely different user interface and plug it in, or take a very different word predictor and plug it in, or use a different sensor and plug it in,” said Nachman.
“We wanted to build something that you can easily morph to fit the needs of whoever is using that system.”
Redmayne said he developed a whole new appreciation for science and technology after making the movie.
“Every part of it was an education for me, especially since I gave up science when I was a kid,” he said.
“There are big questions of quantum theory and relativity…then there are the intricacies of technology,” he said, pausing to ponder the man acting has allowed him to emulate.
“The specifics of using science in the minutiae of Stephen’s day to day is riveting.”
Before leaving, he soaked up some Silicon Valley lore inside the Intel Museum.
He wandered through the years when Intel was just a start up in 1968 and the creation of the first microprocessor, the 4004, from 1971.
He stopped to ponder the collection of Microma smartwatches, which pre-date the Apple Watch by three decades.
He even got to play a bunny-suited chipmaker.