Stephen Hawking has long relied on technology to help him connect with the outside world. For the past decade the renowned physicist, who has battled a degenerative motor neuron disease for half a century, has used a voluntary twitch of his cheek muscle to compose words and sentences one letter at a time. Each tweak stops a cursor that continuously scans text on a screen. But in recent years his condition has deteriorated, and he now communicates at the rate of just one word per minute. In late 2011 Hawking contacted Intel to ask if the company could help.

Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner noted at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January that the company has built an improved word predictor and is exploring the use of facial-recognition software to speed communication. This work is part of Intel's broader research into devices that can help the elderly and disabled. The key is “context awareness,” technology that allows gadgets to anticipate users' needs, such as letting them know about appointment times and reminding them to carry enough cash when running errands.

Intel's plan requires a combination of hardware sensors—camera, accelerometer, microphone, thermometer and others—with software that can check one's personal calendar, social networks and Internet browsing habits, to name a few.

Said Rattner: “We'll be emotionally connected with our devices in a few years.”