This article was updated on June 8, 2015.
Celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking has been confined to a wheelchair since the 1960s, devastated by Lou Gehrig's disease. The illness eventually limited his communications with the world around him to twitching his cheek muscles. A computer system interprets these movements, yielding roughly one word per minute.
But things have changed. Thanks to research by technology giant Intel(NASDAQ:INTC)and predictive typing specialist SwiftKey, the frail genius now uses a much better speech system -- one that he himself hails as "life-changing."
The new system, known as the Assistive Context-Aware Toolkit or ACAT for short, has been in development for two years and is designed to fit Hawkings' needs exactly. He had been using the new toolkit for several months, made a public announcement of the upgraded system last December, and continued testing ACAT in private for another few weeks.
Now, Intel has released the ACAT source code as an open-source project, so that developers around the world can build new tools on the same foundation. SwiftKey's proprietary language models and predictive text library will stay behind lock and key, being tailor-made for Hawking.
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To me, that's the exciting part.
Yes, it's great to see one of the world's brightest minds gaining new powers of communication. If he can write more books, give new lectures, and generally share his brilliance, the world at large will benefit. But the effects of unleashing the ACAT tools under an open-source license may turn out to be even greater.
ACAT is based on Intel and SwiftKey's mobile technologies, which you can find in smartphones, laptops, and tablets today. But they take the predictive text input idea in a new direction, providing different interpretations for different situations. Giving a speech, speed may matter more than complete accuracy. Writing a book, it's the other way around.
Current technologies don't adjust to these circumstances, but ACAT does. And soon, you'll see hobbyists and large corporations alike hashing out new ways to use and improve Hawkings' system. Businesses may be built around this input method and its extreme focus on custom-fitted, user-friendly operation.
Open-source systems tend to do that, particularly when they solve common problems with high-quality tools. I'd say that faster and better user input into computer systems counts as a common use case with plenty of room for improvement. And if ACAT is good enough to impress the notoriously picky Stephen Hawking, I'm pretty sure it could make a real impact on your life and mine as well.
Now before you write off the potential business impact as a ridiculous idea, let me highlight a couple of success stories. Red Hat sells nothing but open-source software and top-notch support contracts for these tools. Here's a six-year chart of Red Hat's market-crushing returns:
The Firefox web browser is also entirely open-sourced, developed by volunteers for the non-profit Mozilla foundation. Today, Firefox is the third most used browser in the world. Open source software really can make a mark on the business landscape.
There's no guarantee that ACAT will spark a game-changing success story like Firefox or Linux. However, growth investors should keep a close eye on what gets built around Stephen Hawkings' speech and writing tools and be ready to invest if and when a solid business emerges.
Anders Bylund owns shares of Intel and Red Hat. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.