Remembering Stephen Hawking With the Team that Helped Give Him a Voice

Also read: How Intel and ThinkPad gave Professor Stephen Hawking a voice

While thousands of onlookers lined the streets of Cambridge, the bell at Great St. Mary’s Church rang out 76 times to mark the life, death, and lasting legacy of famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

At first, the day seemed to hold a solemn gravity. Live streamed online, the world watched as one its greatest minds was put to rest to a chorus of eulogies from professors, former students, and loved ones. Yet away from the commotion, 50 homeless people were enjoying a three-course Easter meal courtesy of Professor Hawking. The parting gift was handed out at a nearby church with a touching note that explained the meal was simply a “gift from Stephen.”

And that’s Stephen Hawking in a nutshell: a miraculous thinker who while seeking to answer some of the biggest questions in the universe, never stopped being a kind and caring presence here on Earth. Lenovo spoke with the team from Intel that worked on giving him a voice and learned that this project was far beyond a technical feat — it was a rich, emotional experience.

“What I find really inspiring about Stephen is the fact that most people in his position would have simply given up,” says Travis Bonifield, Senior Application Engineer at Intel who helped design Professor Hawking’s computer-based communication system. “At the end of the day, I believe he’s famous not because of his work with black holes or the fact he was a theoretical physicist in a wheelchair, but simply because he is an incredible example of perseverance. That’s what makes a hero — pressing forward in the face of insurmountable odds.”

By now, most people are familiar with at least a slice of Stephen Hawking’s incredible life story. Reaching a level of pop culture status uncommon for most celebrities — let alone a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics — Hawking’s life has been documented through books, documentaries, and the 2014 film “The Theory of Everything.” In brief, Hawking contracted motor neuron disease in 1963 and was given only two years to live. Through a mix of dogged determination and technological advances from Intel and Lenovo, Hawking was able to continue his research, publish groundbreaking works, receive dozens of honorary degrees, and go down in history as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein.

Cosmologist, space traveler, and hero to anyone looking to beat the odds, Hawking was one of science’s brightest stars. Yet on a day to day level, he was a kind, approachable man. Bonifield and Lama Nachman, the Director of Intel’s Anticipatory Computer Lab in Silicon Valley, had the fascinating role of updating Hawking’s computer and software about every two years. These two were instrumental in the development of ACAT — an Assistive Contextually Aware Toolkit based on Hawking’s speech. In other words, their job was to give a voice to Professor Hawking, so he could in turn give a voice to the most mystifying aspects of the cosmos.

“In testing the functionality of our early designs, the easy thing to do would be to respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” says Bonifield. “But of course, he always wanted to respond in rich, complex sentences. He had significant things to say and wasn’t going to leave it to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

And while the process was sometimes frustrating, Nachman made it clear that Professor Hawking never lost his sense of humor. “Before we implemented anything, we’d run it by him and he would always find all the bugs,” she says. “He had such a great sense of humor. He would do something that he knew would make the bug surface, and then turn and give us this sly smile.”

Updating someone’s computer is one thing, yet when that technology is physically attached to someone’s wheelchair and is their only means of communication, the job becomes much more intimate. Bonifield and Nachman might have been slightly star-struck when first meeting Hawking, but that quickly faded into a genuine friendship. Bonifield recalls a particularly poignant moment when Stephen needed to be moved from his chair to the couch. Hawking’s nurse did not have the strength to move him herself, so she asked Bonifield for help. “You don’t get physically close to people like that often,” says Bonifield. “I remember being struck by how slight he was, and yet how important and how much he meant to the scientific community and those who loved him.”

In-between catching bugs and testing contextual technologies, Nachman remembers chatting about world events with Hawking. “I’m Palestinian and so naturally I’m interested in Middle Eastern politics,” she says. “I remember being surprised by not only how educated he was about the situation in Syria and the refugee crisis, but how he didn’t have any reservations about using his status to advance humanitarian causes. He was always thinking, ‘How do we save this planet?’ It was core and central to everything he was about.”

For Intel and Lenovo, giving Stephen Hawking a voice proved to be the project of a lifetime. It was something that was once perceived to be impossible, but subverting expectations is the norm for Professor Hawking. He proved that black holes, once thought to be nothing but cosmic vacuums, actually emit radiation and have a temperature. He also contributed that the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time — implying that the way the universe began was completely determined by the laws of science.

His many publications included “The Large Scale Structure of Space-time” with G F R Ellis, “General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey,” with W Israel, and “300 Years of Gravitation,” with W Israel. Among the popular books Stephen Hawking published are his best-seller “A Brief History of Time,” “Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays,” “The Universe in a Nutshell,” “The Grand Design” and “My Brief History.”

In everything he did, Hawking imbued a sense of limitless light and warmth. Perhaps in an act of cosmic intervention, Hawking passed away on March 14 — Albert Einstein’s birthday. Further cementing his place in history, Hawking's ashes will be interred at London’s Westminster Abbey, which also houses the remains of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, among other great minds.

“I’ll never forget my time with Stephen,” says Nachman. “His determination under the hardest of situations, his unwavering dedication. I honestly don’t believe there’s any problem that can’t be solved now — and that’s because of Stephen.”



Rahil Arora leads Lenovo's Customer Stories program.