The Indian Engineers Who Helped Stephen Hawking Get His Voice Back
One of science’s biggest celebrities since Albert Einstein, renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76 in the early hours of Wednesday. The author of the best-selling book A Brief History of Time was born on January 9, 1942 (the 300th death anniversary of Galileo) and died on Wednesday (the 139th birthday of Einstein).
In India, fans and well-wishers of the pioneering physicist took to social media to pay their heartfelt tributes to one of the greatest minds of our time. However, few of them know that it was a technology developed by Indian engineers that helped Professor Hawking (who lost his voice in 1985 after a tracheotomy) talk again.
In January 2001, Stephen Hawking came to India for the first time for a 16-day-long tour, which he later described as “spectacular”.
In the first leg of the tour in Mumbai, Hawking attended an International Physics Symposium at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), titled Albert Einstein Memorial Lecture (‘Predicting the Future: From Astrology to Black Hole’) and their celebration. Celebrated 59th birthday on January 8, 2001 at the Oberoi Towers Hotel where he stayed.
Subsequently, Hawking – who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (known as ALS) when he was just 21 – traveled around Mumbai in a specially redesigned vehicle Which could accommodate their wheelchairs.
It was during this time that his colleagues began reaching out to many people and organizations, who could help write a software program that would help Hawking communicate through his computerized wheelchair (the software he was using at the time Was experiencing problems with).
In a video from The Scroll, Krishna recalled her meeting with Hawking, saying that the revered physicist was not a forbidden person at all. He said that Hawking was just a warm, fun-loving person who liked to crack fun and had a serious problem that needed serious attention.
This meeting left Krishna convinced about the dire need to develop a better tech-human interface. It would make it easier for him to express himself. Ably partnered by Mehta (a teacher, software engineer and dedicated disability rights activist). He began using his technical training to do just this.
And their efforts bore fruit when they were able to create a software. It would fulfill the writing and speaking needs of people with severe motor and speech disabilities. Called Elocutor, the software works on a prediction model. Attempts to anticipate what a user is going to type next. Learns from what he or she had already typed in the past.
But this amazing feat was not the end of the talented duo’s journey of working for people with disabilities.
Got the Achievement
In 2009, Arun and his partner Vikram Krishna founded BAPSI (Bidirectional Access Promotion Society). An NGO that aims to make technology solutions accessible and affordable for the “information poorest”. People who have limited access to information because of their disability. Because information is not presented in a user-friendly way.
Among the applications BAPSI has made to help deaf-blind people. Communicate are Pocket SMS (an SMS app that uses vibrations as in Morse code to read text). Narangi (a slate for deaf and blind children, where once the sketcher traces his or her drawing , it vibrates). And SKID (a web-based software program for children with cognitive disabilities such autism, dyslexia, and cerebral palsy).
Aside from his work with BAPSI. Mehta has also taught computer programming skills to visually-impaired students in New Delhi. Providing them with the skills required to generate audio-visual content for the blind in the future. Realizing that a lot more need to be done to address this issue. The 64-year-old IIT Delhi alumnus plans to continue working in this direction.
“While developing that software we realized the importance of technology. In the lives of people with disabilities, especially those who have a tough time communicating,” Mehta says. “So we started doing more work in this area. Only to realize that working continuously in this field did not make commercial sense. It is something more suited for an NGO than for a software company. ”
“The talents of so many people with disabilities are lost everyday. Because they are unable to receive an education, unable to communicate and get information. We have to help them recognize their potential, ”he says.