Catherine Wolf, J69, met her husband through an algorithm. It was 1967 and Operation Match, a dating service that used an IBM computer, paired the Tufts psychology student with Joel Wolf, who was then studying math at MIT.
It was a fitting form of connection for a woman who would go on to help revolutionize the way that humans interact with computers. After marrying Joel and earning a PhD in experimental psychology at Brown University, Wolf was hired as a research psychologist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. She studied how people do work, and designed faster, more accurate interfaces for technology that did things like convert speech to text and perform banking transactions by phone. Her work would go on to shape the technology of today. Wolf died in February after a two-decade battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Wolf began her career at a time when talking to computers was a painful experience. You’d say something, and the computer would spend long moments filtering out ambient noise, digitizing the sounds you’d made, and analyzing them before coming up with what it thought you meant—which was often wrong. Wolf was a pioneer in the work to change that. With her guidance, IBM’s systems began to be able to adjust to an individual person’s voice, paving the way for modern voice recognition technology that is used today for dictation, AI assistants such as Siri and Alexa, and more than half of Google searches. “She really liked thinking about how people interacted with computers, and getting these two languages to talk to each other and understand each other,” said Laura Wolf-Port, one of her daughters.
One day in 1996, Wolf’s left foot went stiff during a modern dance class. She was ultimately diagnosed with ALS. Despite her diagnosis, she continued to work at IBM until 2003, by which time she was breathing through a tube. She began writing poetry, and she fought her health insurance company when it refused to cover her nursing and drug costs. She wrote about these battles, as well as her support for single-payer health care, on her ABC News blog, and in Neurology Now and other publications.
In time, Wolf lost the use of nearly her entire body. She began communicating via technology that translated the movements of her eyebrow into text. She also began working with the New York Department of Health’s Wadsworth Institute to test a system that responds to your thoughts. “It was technology that could be extremely important for someone who was close to being locked in,” said Joel Wolf, referring to locked-in syndrome, the medical condition in which consciousness remains even though the body is almost completely paralyzed. Being locked in, Wolf said, was “one of her great fears.”
“By focusing on what I can still do, and not on what I’ve lost, I have a full life despite ALS,” Wolf wrote in Neurology Now. That life included going to folk concerts with Joel in a specially equipped van and joining in family dance parties. “She would watch the kids and all of us dance,” Wolf-Port said, “and she would move her eyes to the music.”