Cinema Fix: The Theory of Everything – The importance of speech-generating devices and speech synthesis

December 9, 2015 4:45 pm

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.

Stephen Hawking

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The Theory of Everything is a 2014 British biographical drama film directed by James Marsh and starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. It earned 5 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and tells the story of Stephen Hawking, the world-famous astrophysicist, and his ex-wife Jane Wilde.

In 1963, just before turning 21, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, slowly disabling a person. Doctors gave him just two years to live but, also thanks to Jane’s love, he didn’t give up his studies and eventually broke new ground in science, becoming one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein – as well as one of the most influential speakers on Earth. He has written multiple best-selling books, among which there is his particularly awarded and well-known A Brief History of Time.

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Speech-generating devices and speech synthesis

After being diagnosed with ALS, Hawking started using crutches while lecturing, and eventually a wheelchair. Soon, his speech deteriorated to the point that no one could really understand it, and as a result he had to use also ‘a machine to speak’.

Speech-generating devices (SGDs) are “electronic augmentative and alternative communication systems used to supplement or replace speech or writing” for individuals with severe impairments, enabling them to verbally communicate their needs. These machines can produce “electronic voice output by using digitized recordings of natural speech or through speech synthesis“. The content of the vocabulary on an SGD is influenced by “the user’s needs and the contexts that the device will be used in”, and that’s why the development of techniques to improve this type of vocabulary and rate of speech production is currently an active research area. The first known SGD was prototyped in the mid-1970s. Other notable users of SGDs include Roger Ebert (film critic), Tony Proudfoot (journalist), and Pete Frates (founder of the ALS ice bucket challenge).

Check the video below to watch a related scene from The Theory of Everything movie:

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Written by Eva Barros Campelli

Communication trainee at TermCoord

Italian journalist – trained at the London School of Journalism

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