Physicist Stephen Hawking may be one of the smartest people in the world, but his body, wracked by degenerative motor neuron disease, has left him almost unable to communicate. Although he famously "speaks" through a computerized speech generator, the system he uses is painfully and frustratingly slow, translating twitches in Hawking's cheek into words, one letter at a time. Hawking can only "type" about one word a minute due to his worsening physical condition.

But that might soon change. At this month's Consumer Electronics Show, chipmaker giant Intel announced it was working on a new system that could allow Hawking to type five words a minute, and maybe as many as 10. Intel has been helping Hawking with communication technology for more than two decades.

The current system Hawking uses is kind of like texting with only one key. A cursor on his screen rolls through all possible text characters and stops to input a letter or number when he makes a voluntary twitch in his cheek. Scientific American reports that the new system, which is still in development, would allow Hawking to use multiple facial expressions to input text. Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner equated the system to typing in Morse code and tells the magazine it would be a great improvement for Hawking.

In addition to just reading his facial expressions, which would include mouth and eyebrow movements, the system would also contain a word predictor to help generate words faster in context. Intel is also looking into the use of facial-recognition software as another avenue to improve communication. All of the systems being developed for Hawking could also be used in the growing market of elderly assistance technologies.

Rattner has been meeting with Hawking since the physicist's 70th birthday in January 2012. This year, as a late gift for Hawking's 71st birthday, Intel presented him with a gift: a 300-millimeter silicon wafer inscribed with the message "Happy Birthday Stephen Hawking" hundreds of times on a nanometer scale. The letters in the message are just 10 microns wide: one-10th the width of a human hair. The gift was presented to Hawking on Jan. 21 at a ceremony at the Stephen Hawking Centre for Theoretical Cosmology in Cambridge, which he founded and where he serves as director of research.

Hawking, the best-selling author of "A Brief History of Time" and "The Grand Design," was recently named one of the first winners of the Fundamental Physics Prize, which included a prize of $3 million "for his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum aspects of the early universe."

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