Referred to by Forbes as "The Ultimate Thinking Machine"
Ray Kurzweil has been given 15 honorary degrees.
Raymond Kurzweil is an inventor whose innovations have touched the lives of many. He may be best known for his work on the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, but his influence goes far beyond. He has been a pioneer in optical character recognition (OCR), the development of the first CCD flatbed scanner, text-to-speech synthesis, music synthesis, speech recognition, virtual reality, and cybernetic art. He is an accomplished author, penning books on artificial intelligence, transhumanism, technological singularity, and futurism. He has a vision of the future around which many people cannot wrap their heads.
Raymond Kurzweil was born in 1948 and grew up in Queens, NY. His father, a musician, and mother, a visual artist, were secular Jews who escaped Austria before the start of World War II. Raymond was raised as a Unitarian Universalist, which exposed him to numerous religious beliefs growing up. He was a member of a Unitarian youth organization, marched for civil rights, and was a proponent of social justice.
By the age of five, using spare parts and Erector sets, he was building things. He knew he wanted to be an inventor, later expressing that it gave him a “magical, transcendent feeling.” Ray’s uncle, who worked at Bell Labs, introduced him to the fundamentals of computers, and that seemed to have sparked a fire.
He loved tinkering with computers, and spent a lot of time on Canal Street in Manhattan, acquiring components from surplus electronics stores. He got a job, at the young age of 14, programming computers for the Research Department at Head Start. Kurzweil wrote his first computer program at age fifteen: a statistical data processing program that was used by researchers at IBM. A couple of years later, he played a composition on the television show “I’ve Got a Secret.” The secret? Young Raymond had built a computer and programmed it to recognize patterns in the music of famous composers. The computer, then, composed the piece that Kurzweil played. Ray won first prize in the International Science Fair for this project, and was one of 40 Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalists who were afforded the opportunity to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Kurzweil went on to study at MIT, and earned his B.S. in Computer Science and Literature in 1970. In his sophomore year there, Kurzweil started a business that used a computer program to match high school students with colleges. He created a database of 3,000 colleges, and compiled a list of two million facts about them. He had to rent time on the only computer in New England with enough memory to handle the data. The company was called the Select College Consulting Program, and it was successful enough that he sold it to Harcourt, Brace & World for $100,000 plus royalties.
In 1974, Kurzweil started a company called Kurzweil Computer Products. Within two years’ time, he introduced the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which was really a combination of three different inventions, all of them firsts. One was the first omni-font optical character recognition system. Previous technologies in this area were able to read only certain fonts. His system allowed the computer to recognize the basic qualities inherent to each letter so as to be able to recognize other fonts. Another was the CCD flatbed scanner, which was paired with a full text-to-speech synthesizer. Together, the three technologies took up an entire tabletop, and the machine opened up a world of text to the blind, who were previously limited by what was available in Braille. The new device was announced at a press conference on January 13, 1976, and Walter Cronkite used it to sign off the air. “And that’s the way it was, January 13, 1976.” Stevie Wonder purchased the first production unit, and he and Kurzweil developed a long-term friendship.
Now it was time to expand the use of the technology. In 1978, Kurzweil Computer Products started selling a commercial version of the optical character recognition program. LexisNexis was an early customer, and used the technology to transfer printed documents to its database. This kind of information was previously keyed by hand, so it was a giant step forward for the company in terms of the amount and variety of information it could provide. Kurzweil Computer Products was sold to Xerox in 1980, becoming a subsidiary known as Scansoft, which has since changed names and become Nuance Communications. Kurzweil was a consultant to the company until 1995.
In the early 1980’s, synthesizers were commonly in use, but they could not take the place of their acoustic musical counterparts because they just didn’t sound as good. After a 1982 meeting with Stevie Wonder, who lamented the aforementioned problem, Kurzweil founded Kurzweil Music Systems in an effort to produce a more natural-sounding synthesizer. His success was rapid, and in 1984, he unveiled the Kurzweil K250, which was able to imitate the sounds of numerous orchestral instruments. It was so good that, in tests with musicians, they were unable to tell the difference between the K250 and a grand piano. In 1990, his book The Age of Intelligent Machines was published. In it, he discussed the history and likely future of artificial intelligence. That same year, Kurzweil Music Systems, then in bankruptcy, was sold to Young Chang, which is a Korean manufacturer of musical instruments. Again, Kurzweil stayed on as a consultant for a number of years.
In 1982, Raymond started Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, this time focusing on speech recognition technology. The company’s first commercially marketed system was introduced in 1987. The technology was later applied to systems that allow doctors to speak into their computers to create medical reports, and the technology, now called Clinical Reporter, is in use in numerous medical facilities in the U.S. The company was involved in an accounting-fraud scandal in 1995, but Kurzweil was not implicated, and the company sold in 1997 for $53 million.
Raymond’s next endeavor was called Kurzweil Educational Systems, which was started in 1996. The company’s goal was to develop technologies that would help students who were blind, or who had dyslexia or ADD. One of the company’s products, the Kurzweil 1000, is a text-to-speech conversion software program. It allows a computer to read scanned or electronic text aloud for the visually impaired. The Kurzweil 3000 is a learning system that helps with reading, writing, and study skills.
In 1999, Kurzweil started working on a hedge fund called “FatKat,” and acronym for Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies, and it began trading in 2006. He wants to enhance the software’s ability to recognize patterns in “currency fluctuations and stock-ownership trends.” His goal, in line with the predictions he laid out in The Age of Spiritual Machines, is for computers to surpass humans in their ability to make profitable investment decisions.
In 2005, the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader was introduced. It is a small, hand-held device, comprised of a digital camera and text-to-speech software in a little computer. Those with impaired vision can use the digital camera to provide text to the unit’s computer, which then reads it back to them. This makes letters, books, currency, and even package labels accessible to the visually impaired, at a cost of about $1600.
Raymond Kurzweil is deeply wedded to his ideas about technology and how it can improve human life. He is a futurist who believes in Transhumanism, a movement that opines that humans will eventually merge with technology, making them immortal. In part, his beliefs center around what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns. The idea behind the theory is that technology is accelerating exponentially, so that, within the next 30 years or so, we will have miniscule robots coursing through our bodies that can arrest and reverse aging and disease at the cellular level. Furthermore, when we give up our “wet” bodies, humans will be able to think at electronic speeds. By 2045, he believes humans will reach the Singularity, by which time “strictly biological” humans will be unable to comprehend the technology of the time.
So sure is he of this theory that he gets weekly blood tests, takes massive amounts of vitamins and supplements, more than 200 a day (from one of his business ventures, Ray & Terry’s Longevity Products), in an attempt to arrest the aging process. He believes he is reprogramming his body chemistry, and claims to have slowed his own aging process to a crawl. “By most measures, my biological age is about 40, and I have some hormone and nutrient levels of a person in his 30’s,” said the then-59-year-old in a 2007 interview with Brian O’Keefe of Fortune Magazine.
Despite his successes in the field of technology, as well as his accurate predictions for the advancement of technology in the past, his beliefs about the future are not without detractors. For instance, Mitch Kapor, the co-founder of Lotus Development, made a $20,000 public bet with Kurzweil that computers will not be able to demonstrate consciousness at a human level by 2029. (The test that the computer will have to pass is called the Turing test, and requires that the computer demonstrate a mind with intelligence, self-awareness, and emotional richness that are indistinguishable from that of a human.) He refers to Kurzweil’s theories about the future as “…intelligent design for the IQ 140 people.” He contends that Kurzweil’s theories are based upon a religious impulse. And there are those who agree with Kurzweil’s assessment of technological growth, but who are not sure it will be for the better of human kind.
Regardless of what you think of his predictions for the future, Raymond Kurzweil is certainly to be regarded for his past and present works. He is the author of five nonfiction books, one of which is currently being made into a movie. His inventions have helped countless individuals and have furthered the field of artificial intelligence. He holds 15 honorary doctorates, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the highest award the President of the United States can bestow upon individuals for pioneering new technologies, and the 2001 Lemelson-MIT Prize for a lifetime of developing technologies to help the disabled and to enrich the arts.