The Eminent Physicist vs. The Media Myth
The recent passing of the notable British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and the miscellaneous obituaries on his persona in magazines and newspapers motivate me to share with you some reservations I have had on the legend of Hawking in the mainstream media. Yes, he was indeed a world-class scientist, and surely one of his most notable and perdurable contributions will be the Hawking radiation from black holes. But supremely excellent as he was, the larger-than-life myth portrayed by the media has often bothered me, especially in the last decades of his life.
The rub is as follows: If you were to estimate the amount of technical information that Hawking produced in his life, say in terms of bits and bytes, you would find that that would amply (vastly?) exceed the time and means he had available to transfer his thoughts onto either paper or synthetic voice. This was especially true in the last few decades of his life when he was confined to a chair and communicated via his computer. So how did he get so much information out of his brain?
Now, I have seen numerous videos on Hawking, and especially those in which he sits immobile in his chair and answers questions posed by the audience via synthetic voice. But not once have I seen him actually creating his writings and working on his in silico responses. There is surely a good reason for that: Writing is a tedious, very slow process, and such videos would have been exceedingly boring.
My understanding is that he looked at a screen with a keyboard, and he selected letters by staring at individual characters; a scanner then picked up his gaze and detected which letter he was looking at. After two or three letters were selected, the software would offer him a choice of likely words – this was optimized by a statistical analysis of all of the words he had used in previous writings. But here is the bottleneck: This is an excruciatingly slow process, or as an information scientist would have expressed it, Hawking had minimal bandwidth. Indeed, try watching a video without a broadband cable connection. Yet the rate at which Hawking published papers with advanced ideas and very complex concepts and thoughts, not to mentions his books, surely greatly exceeded that bandwidth.
My own speculation is that he had an inner circle of scientists working with him, and that his output was the aggregate of the work of all of them, and not just of Hawking by himself. Now, there is nothing wrong with that – most science is the result of teamwork – but it should still be acknowledged openly.
Most probably the special computer he owned must have already stored a good number of answers to myriad expected queries from the public and the media. Their choice and retrieval in response to an actual question could have been done automatically with the help of some artificial intelligence programs in the computer. Or perhaps the choice was made by one of his unseen assistants. Anyway, in none of the videos have I seen him moving a finger, blink one of his eyes, or twitch the edge of his mouth to search for and choose a proper response. So what gives?
Chances are that new concepts were created along the following interactive scenario: Say a researcher in his team asked him a question along the lines of: "Prof. Hawking, wouldn't you think that Artificial Intelligence is dangerous"? and then follow that with an elaboration on the problem. Hawking would then have simply listened, and in due time have agreed (or disagreed) with some subtle gesture of his. That assistant scientist would then have gone on to attribute to Hawking the authorship of that thought and perhaps even have written that opinion on his behalf. In other words, complex ideas and technical positions must have conveniently been elaborated by some back-and-forth interaction with his team, to which he eventually gave his final approval, even if not creating these ab initio.
All of that collaborative technical effort surely produced plenty of funds for the Lucasian Professorship at Cambridge that he held, for his affiliated lecturers and faculty as well as for his assistants and technical team, all of whom had a vested interest in keeping the money and celebrity machine well lubricated. Indeed, at his death, Hawking was a multimillionaire whose wealth vastly exceeded that of most other physicists in the world.
And society benefited too: They had a scientist who valiantly faced physical adversity, a living myth to celebrate and exhibit as a worthy example to others.
But why has nobody ever bothered to explain how Hawking-the-Media-Celebrity actually worked? Was the press so enthralled that they did not notice that large pieces of information were missing in this picture? Perhaps it is because exemplary heroes like Hawking are accepted at face value, for they are perceived to be beneficial to the world. We love to fool ourselves whenever it seems to serve a good purpose.
Now, last April the American CBS broadcast 60 Minutes showed a segment on MIT's Media Lab and the development there of a device that can "read the mind," translating the thoughts into actionable ideas in the computer, say an Internet search. But I am quite certain that Hawking did not possess and use any such device, as they are still just in the very early design and development phase.
One final word in closing: None of this is meant to detract from the superb technical merits and human qualities of Stephen Hawking-the-person and scientist. Instead, it is meant to combat Fake News. To the extent that mainstream media’s exaggerated reports are clearly non-believable in some dimension, it seriously detracts from their credibility and damages their reputation, which they will then struggle to gain back. Put simply, it is the parable of the naked king all over again.