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An Engineer's Quest To Save Stephen Hawking's Voice


And now a story about an instantly recognizable voice.


STEPHEN HAWKING: Can you hear me?


CHANG: That, of course, is physicist Stephen Hawking, who died earlier this month. That machine voice became Hawking's voice after a debilitating neurological disease took away his own ability to talk. Hawking used to joke about getting stuck with an American accent. But the truth is, the late scientist grew quite attached to it - so attached that he got a group of tech whizzes to take on the painstaking task of rescuing his voice. After nearly 30 years, the 1986 hardware that powered Stephen Hawking's voice was degrading. And one of the engineers who had to figure out how to save it was Eric Dorsey.

Hi, Eric.

ERIC DORSEY: Hi, Ailsa. How are you doing?

CHANG: I'm good. So when you first got a call in 2014 about preserving Hawking's voice, the same 1986 version which you helped develop, what went through your mind?

DORSEY: The first thing that went through my mind was I was just kind of shocked that he was still using the same original hardware and that, you know, the same voice because, of course, technology had moved on quite a bit with products like Siri or Alexa.

CHANG: What was it specifically about the 1986 voice that he seemed so attached to?

DORSEY: You know, one was the kind of intonation that it had. You know, he wanted a voice that people could listen to for an hour for a lecture and not get...

CHANG: (Laughter) Irritated.

DORSEY: ...You know, bored, irritated but also be extremely intelligible.

CHANG: So you and a team go on this quest to save Stephen Hawking's voice. And your first lead was some software from 1996 that you guys unearthed. And from what I understand, a tech company had already pitched using this software back in 1996 to help Hawking preserve his voice. Let's hear his 1986 voice and the '96 voice side by side.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: So let me finish by reflecting on the state of the universe.

CHANG: And this is a sample of the '96 software trying to upgrade that.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: So let me finish by reflecting on the state of the universe.

CHANG: That sounds cleaner to me. What did Hawking say back then when he first heard the 1996 version?

DORSEY: Right. So even though you could argue that acoustically it is better, it's obviously different. And, you know, he wasn't interested in the voice being better in any way. He just wanted to be exactly the same. And so we looked at, you know, the acoustical differences and we talked about, you know, reverse engineering the 1996 version to bring it back to the 1986 version, which was the first approach we looked at.

CHANG: OK, so this gets super technical and I'm totally simplifying here. But basically the solution you guys came up with is you got some software to mimic the old 1986 hardware and you finally came up with this voice.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #3: So let me finish by reflecting on the state of the universe.

CHANG: Ok, so when Hawking heard that, was he like, yeah, this is it?

DORSEY: Yes. After 3 1/2 years, we finally presented it to him at the end of January of this year. And he said, yes, that is identical to my voice. That's the one I want.

CHANG: And that final version, Hawking got it just this year - right? - in January just a couple of months before he died.

DORSEY: Yes. I know. It was a race because, you know, when we started, we knew he was in his 70s. But we finished it in January and unfortunately, you know, he passed away about six weeks later.

CHANG: What did it mean to you to be part of this whole project?

DORSEY: For me, it was extremely meaningful because it's rare that you can actually reuse engineering work that you did 30, 40 years ago and have such a large impact on his life. I mean, a lot of times, you work on software that, you know, maybe is useful or fun. But, you know, it's not critical to a person's life where this obviously was critical to Stephen Hawking, his ability to communicate with his colleagues and his family.

CHANG: Eric Dorsey, who helped save Stephen Hawking's voice. Thank you very much for joining us.

DORSEY: Thank you, Ailsa.

[EDITOR'S NOTE ON MARCH 28: We should have noted that as we prepared this report, we read the San Francisco Chronicle’s story about the efforts to save Hawking’s voice. While we went on to do our own reporting, the Chronicle’s account did draw us to the story. We should have said that and linked to it, as we’re now doing. https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/The-Silicon-Valley-quest-to-preserve-Stephen-12759775.php] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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