Lama Nachman: Leveraging Technology to Help People With Disabilities

Not many people can say they Skype and joke around with Stephen Hawking. But IEEE Member Lama Nachman has developed that rapport after working closely with him over the past three years to upgrade his communication device.

Living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle twitching, weakness, and speech impairment, Hawking relies on an Intel computer system to type and voice his thoughts as well as navigate computer applications and Internet browsing. Nachman, director of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab in Santa Clara, Calif., leads the team that is improving this system to make it simpler and faster for Hawking to use.

Nachman has worked on intelligent wireless sensors for environmental and health monitoring since joining Intel in 2003. Using the technologies that can sense and predict users’ activities or the environment as tools to aid the disabled hadn’t crossed her mind until she was asked to work on this project in 2011, which she calls an eye-opener. “As I started working with Stephen Hawking, I realized there are so many technologies on the market for the general population that can be leveraged for people with disabilities,” she says.

Nachman is now making the Intel system open source so that researchers can expand it to help others with neurodegenerative diseases.

Because Hawking wanted to continue using the same equipment he’s had for more than 20 years, Nachman’s challenge was to update its functions. The original system allowed Hawking to, for example, select letters on a keyboard screen or click a mouse with a twitch of his cheek. This facial movement is picked up by an infrared sensor mounted on his glasses. For Hawking to “type” words, a cursor scanned letters on a screen. Hawking selects a letter by moving his cheek when the cursor hovers over the letter he wants, thus creating words one letter at a time.

The new system reduced the number of words Hawking needed to spell out completely by adding word-prediction technology that is used in smartphones. Working with the London-based company SwiftKey, Nachman’s team used Hawking’s lectures and writings to train word-prediction software. “If he spells out the word ‘black,’ the next word is likely to be ‘hole,’” Nachman says. “For the general population, it would be ‘dog’ or ‘cat.’” The software, which learns such preferences over time, has doubled his typing speed.

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