Engineering student helps Stephen Hawking find his voice

23 October 2017

Huddersfield student Pawel Wozniak with scientist Stephen Hawking
Huddersfield student Pawel Wozniak with scientist Stephen Hawking

University of Huddersfield student Pawel Wozniak was on placement at Intel when the opportunity came to work on the devices that the famous physicist uses to communicate.

Stephen Hawking is the world’s most famous scientist, and a student at the University of Huddersfield has had the responsibility of making sure that he keeps his equally famous synthesised voice – plus the ability to communicate his influential ideas.

Pawel Wozniak, who is completing his Bachelor of Engineering degree at the University, earned a coveted work placement year with computing and electronics giant Intel, at its Swindon base. He had a wide range of tasks and responsibilities, which included visiting the physicist in Cambridge to troubleshoot his communication devices.

The devices include a 'blink sensor' that the Professor uses to select words via an infrared switch mounted on his spectacles, as well as the synthesiser that produces the famous voice. The history of the technology dates back to the 1980s, but since the late 1990s, Intel has had the responsibility of maintaining the Professor’s equipment, and the company wrote the programme named ACAT that is now the Professor’s main computer interface.

“I got involved by offering my help with the blink sensor to one of the Intel engineers who provide technical support to the Professor,” explained Polish-born Pawel Wozniak. “He was kind enough to let me go with him, and then as our co-operation worked out pretty well, it became a more regular thing.”

During his work-placement year, Pawel paid six visits to Stephen Hawking. He began by analysing and fixing problems that impacted the operation of the blink sensor, and he also provided a vital back-up system. He dealt with some of the issues on site, but he also took some of the circuitry back to Swindon for testing and improvement.

“Meeting Stephen Hawking was one of the greatest experiences of my life, as I have a very strong interest in science in general – including maths, physics, and cosmology – and his work has always inspired me,” said Pawel.

“I enjoy projects that help people improve their lives. It’s great to realise that modern technology has allowed the Professor to continue communicating his breakthrough discoveries to the world, even after he lost almost all of his movement.”

Pawel’s University of Huddersfield degree course is in Electronic Engineering and Computer Systems, and his expertise in practical electronics – analogue and digital – has impressed his personal tutor, Dr Pavlos Lazaridis.

The Intel work placement was earned after a competitive process that included a day-long assessment. Then came a packed 13 months in which Pawel’s wide range of experiences included working in a lab with High-Performance Computer Systems, but also working closely with customers and supporting various events, such as the HPE Discover London 2016.

Now back at the University of Huddersfield, Pawel has embarked on a final-year project that draws inspiration from his year at Intel.

For more information, visit this link from the University of Huddersfield.

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