Making a Homemade Stephen Hawking

It isn’t easy communicating when you have any form of speech impairment. In such cases, a Speech-generating device (SGD) becomes essential to help you talk to the world. When coupled with other ailments that limit body movement, the problem becomes worse. How do you type on a keyboard when you can’t move your hands, and how do you talk when your voice box doesn’t work. Well known Scientist Stephen Hawking has been battling this since 1985. Back then, it took a lot of hardware to build a text entry interface and a text to speech device allowing him to communicate.

But [Marquis de Geek] did a quick hack using just a few parts to make a Voice Box that sounds like Stephen Hawking. Using an arcade push button to act as a single button keyboard, an Arduino, a 74HC595 shift register, a 2-line LCD, and the SP0256 hooked to an audio amplifier / speaker, he built the stand-alone speech synthesizer which sounds just like the voice box that  Stephen Hawking uses. Although Dr. Hawking’s speech hardware is quite complex, [Marquis de Geek]’s hack shows that it’s possible to have similar results using off the shelf parts for a low cost solution.

There aren’t a lot of those SP0256-AL2 chips around. We found just a couple of retailers with small stock levels, so if you want to make one of these voice boxes, better grab those chips while they last. The character entry is not quick, requiring several button presses to get to the character you want to select. But it makes things easier for someone who cannot move their hands or use all fingers. A lot of kids grew up using Speak and Spell, but the hardware inside that box wasn’t the easiest to hack into. For a demo of [Marquis de Geek]’s homemade Hawking voice box, check the video below.

42 thoughts on “Making a Homemade Stephen Hawking

  1. I saw the Hawking documentary a while back and I was flat out astounded at the lack of technology for his condition. I cannot for the life of me understand why they have not used a neural net type transponder for him to communicate with. We have people playing pong, controlling RC cars and making jedi lightsabers float balls in the air and we can’t get the world’s arguably smartest man a communication interface that works better than him twitching his eye? ALS destroys the nerves, not the brain. Why are they not using that?

      1. It is also much easier to use – one has to be trained to operate an EEG-controlled device and that is pretty exhausting and slow.

        Contrary to the popular belief, we are nowhere near understanding and interpreting the signals that the brain emits. EEG is a jumble of waveforms that don’t have any obvious meaning (and differ between people!). Some basic interpretation is known, such as which waveform means that the brain is dreaming or asleep, but not much more beyond that. The EEG-controlled devices operate by learning the waveforms that the user produces when thinking about performing a certain action. It isn’t very reliable and it is mentally exhausting, requiring a lot of concentration over long time.

        Something like the jacks in Matrix or Johny Mnemonic are unfortunately still that – a Hollywood fantasy.

        1. Sorry to reference the same link twice in the same comments section but if you check out Michio Kaku’s “the Future of the mind” on youtube you might be amazed at were we finally are in Neurotech. A lot of what you refer to has actually been worked out, including the groundwork for actually showing video output of memories on a monitor.

          1. The issue is that putting electrodes on the head is like putting your ear to a 12 meter thick wall in alabama to hear what’s going on in korea. The signal is so muddled and degraded it’s never going to be useful for more than selling toys ‘controlled by the brain’.

            And the guy you mention is a TV guy who’s payed to play up a sheer magical future story. You should listen carefully and you’ll notice the difference with the ‘soon’ or ‘one day’ and ‘now’, where ‘soon’ is a very rose-colored imaginary ‘soon’.

    1. Incidentally, I believe a contributor to his semi-recent comments about AI is that he’s been a little impressed by just how well his most recent revision works for predicting what he’s going to say. It’s been predictive for a while, but it’s apparently getting creepy at this point.

      1. Right. The brain acts like a control loop. As there is no response in some parts of his neuronal system the brain is trying to increase the signals. As the electrodes always measure overlapping regions the result is chaos. You would have to place the electrodes inside of his brain or find a way to sense/filter the actual signal.

    2. I’m surprised no one has told you he does exactly what you say. He lost complete use of his hands last year and now there’s a chip in the bottom of his glasses that reads his brainwaves. Its mentioned here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/ibrain-a-device-that-can-read-thoughts.html?_r=1& but I heard about it in Michio Kaku’s the future of the mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUVw6Pn6GTg . According to Michio Stephen can play video games, read and compose email and much more.

        1. Sorry guys, this is what happens when you post from work. Looks like neither of the articles I posted talk specifically about the brain chip. Can anyone find any references to it other than from Michio Kaku’s “the future of the mind” lecture and book?

    3. Brain-computer interfaces (the kind where you learn to move a mouse like you’d move your finger) use the motor cortex and exploit its natural ability to learn to produce any firing pattern. ALS attacks motor neurons everywhere they’re found, also in the motor cortex that BCIs monitor.

      While writing this i opened the wikipedia article on ALS ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amyotrophic_lateral_sclerosis ) and there the top image shows a brain scan with this caption:

      “An MRI with increased signal in the posterior part of the internal capsule which can be tracked to the motor cortex consistent with the diagnosis of ALS.”

      :(

    4. So what school hired this device to be a Professor of Mathematics?
      Did you code in already assembled lectures or does it make them up on the fly?
      How does it grade papers?
      How many books will this device write?

      Since this is a “Homemade Stephen Hawking” it does everything the original does correct?

    5. Good question. I’m guessing it’s his personal choice to stick with what works and what he’s accustomed to, even if it’s not the fastest way to communicate.

      Maybe he thinks quality over quantity when it comes to dialogue ;)

  2. Someone has already made a “Homemade Stephen Hawking”… His parents…
    You are not making a person… Stephen Hawking is a PERSON.. not a piece of technology..
    This project title is offensive and degrading.

    1. fully agree. I am not english native speaker, so I was suprised seeing such text – but explained to myslef that it’s different language rules etc… seems not.

      of course HE is a person , and no one ever will do “homemade ……. ”

      shame on you HaD.

    2. I kind of agree with you. I was wondering what he would think about the title? If it were me I might not like having my name reduced to only refer to my disability… Especially when there’s so much hard work he’s done. tbh, I doubt he personally has time to care how people reference him, but I would personally show more respect.

      1. “If it were me I might not like having my name reduced to only refer to my disability…”

        Tell it to Lou Gehrig…

        Simple solution is to add one word to the HaD title – ‘voice’:
        “making a homemade stephen hawking voice”.
        An easy fix. Or will people then comlain that human / sythetic vocal cords are not involved in the project?…

      1. Stephen Hawking sounds like DECTalk’s Perfect Paul sample set, and due to his fame the public associates that voice with the man. If someone relatively unknown relied on similar hardware configured with that voice, would you accuse them of copying Stephen Hawking?

  3. How about we build a device that just shakes… and we can call it.. “Making a homemade Michael J Fox”
    Or a device that just lays there and does nothing and call it a “Homemade Christopher Reeve”

    1. I agree, and most of the comments here have nothing to do with the project hardware. Maybe the Hackaday author that made up the name is new, or perhaps not from this country originally and does not understand the implications of the name chosen for an article.

      The synthesizer IC used in the project is pretty neat, and can still be found for around $30 US, but there are some modern alternatives that would be cool to play with too.

  4. Made a very important ( revolutionary and unpublished ) discovery – invention-the1.first practical device for reading human thoughts / human mind reading machine / Brain Computer Interface. This discovery is certainly ( exclusive ) exceptional, revolutionary nature! In particular, I have created a means for people with Locked – in Syndrome ( LiS ) and ALS ( such as British physicist Stephen Hawking problem ). But I can’t publish my discovery ( I can’t protect their copyright ) and I invite partnership. Thank you. Сурен Акопов. Email : tyristcheget@gmail.com / About the problem look for example in You Tube :
    1.Jack Gallant, human mind reading machine;
    2.John – Dylan Haynes, human mind reading machine;
    3.Tom Mitchell and Marcel Just, human mind reading machine.
    I should note that the device for communication that uses Stephen Hawking is not the right way Human mind reading machine!

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