Catherine Wolf, Psychologist Who Studied Interaction Between People and Computers, Dies of ALS

Catherine Wolf at her home in Katonah, N.Y., in an undated photograph taken before she contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ( The New York Times/Harold Stone )

Catherine Wolf at her home in Katonah, N.Y., in an undated photograph taken before she contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. (The New York Times/Harold Stone)

Catherine Wolf, an experimental psychologist whose research focused on enhancing interactions between humans and computers — and who, after illness left her paralyzed, relied on her laptop to communicate, using a system that let her wiggle an eyebrow to pick out letters — died on Feb. 7 at her home in Katonah, N.Y. She was 70.

Her husband, Joel, said the cause was sepsis, a complication of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Dr. Wolf’s work at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Westchester County, N.Y., helped programmers develop voice-recognition systems that, for example, let users compose text by speaking to a computer and banking customers make transactions by telephone.

“When she started, you couldn’t speak naturally to a computer and have it understand anything,” John Vergo, principal research staff member at the Watson center, said in a telephone interview. “You had to stop between each word, and you could only hope the computer recognized what you’d said.”

When Mr. Vergo led IBM’s development of a speech-recognition system that did not require stopping after each word, he said, Dr. Wolf was “a technical mentor” who “knew what it took to design systems that worked.”

Her research included examining how people acted in their workplaces, to see how they would use the systems that were being developed. It also included testing prototypes on potential users.

She felt the first symptoms of A.L.S. in 1996: She was unable to flex her left foot during a modern dance class, and her left calf hurt when she ran.

“At first I resented the diagnosis and clung to the hope that I had something else,” she wrote in the journal Neurology Now in 2014. “Anything but it.”

Yet after several opinions, she finally accepted the verdict from an A.L.S. specialist.

The life expectancy of someone with A.L.S. averages about two to five years after a diagnosis, according to the ALS Association. Yet she survived 22 years, placing her among the 10 percent of patients who live at least a decade with the disease.

“Other than A.L.S., I am in perfect health,” she joked in 2005 during an email interview with The New York Times. But the remark underscored her belief that, save for the disease, she had the hardy constitution of her father, who died at 103, and her mother, who died at 98.

Dr. Wolf stayed at IBM until 2003, working from the company office in Hawthorne, N.Y., helped by a nurse and an aide.

excerpt © 2018 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.