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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Raymond Kurzweil: Life, Inventions, and Business Career

Early life

Ray Kurzweil grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. He was born to secular Jewish parents who had escaped Austria just before the onset of World War II, and he was exposed via Unitarian Universalism to a diversity of religious faiths during his upbringing. His father was a musician and composer and his mother was a visual artist. His uncle, an engineer at Bell Labs, taught young Ray the basics of computer science. In his youth, he was an avid reader of science fiction literature. In 1963, at age fifteen, he wrote his first computer program. Designed to process statistical data, the program was used by researchers at IBM. Later in high school he created a sophisticated pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles. The capabilities of this invention were so impressive that, in 1965, he was invited to appear on the CBS television program I’ve Got a Secret, where he performed a piano piece that was composed by a computer he also had built. Later that year, he won first prize in the International Science Fair for the invention, and he was also recognized by the Westinghouse Talent Search and was personally congratulated by President Lyndon B. Johnson during a White House ceremony.


In 1968, during his sophomore year at MIT, Kurzweil started a company that used a computer program to match high school students with colleges. The program, called the Select College Consulting Program, was designed by him and compared thousands of different criteria about each college with questionnaire answers submitted by each student applicant. When he was 20, he sold the company to Harcourt, Brace & World for $100,000 (roughly $500,000 in 2006 dollars) plus royalties. He earned a BS in Computer Science and Literature in 1970 from MIT.

In 1974, Kurzweil started the company Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. and led development of the first omni-font optical character recognition system computer program capable of recognizing text written in any normal font. Before that time, scanners had only been able to read text written in a few fonts. He decided that the best application of this technology would be to create a reading machine, which would allow blind people to understand written text by having a computer read it to them aloud. However, this device required the invention of two enabling technologies, CCD flatbed scanner and the text-to-speech synthesizer. Under his direction, development of these technologies was completed, and on January 13, 1976, the finished product was unveiled during a news conference headed by him and the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. Called the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the device covered an entire tabletop. It gained him mainstream recognition: on the day of the machine’s unveiling, Walter Cronkite used the machine to give his signature soundoff, “And that’s the way it is, January 13, 1976.” While listening to The Today Show, musician Stevie Wonder heard a demonstration of the device and purchased the first production version of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, beginning a lifelong friendship between himself and Kurzweil.

According to former Kurzweil Computer Products employees, the Kurzweil Reading Machine’s designer was engineer Richard Brown, a KCP employee at the time.

Kurzweil’s next major business venture began in 1978, when Kurzweil Computer Products began selling a commercial version of the optical character recognition computer program. LexisNexis was one of the first customers, and bought the program to upload paper legal and news documents onto its nascent online databases.

Two years later, Kurzweil sold his company to Xerox, which had an interest in further commercializing paper-to-computer text conversion. Kurzweil Computer Products became a subsidiary of Xerox formerly known as Scansoft and now as Nuance Communications, and he functioned as a consultant for the former until 1995.

Kurzweil’s next business venture was in the realm of electronic music technology. After a 1982 meeting with Stevie Wonder, in which the latter lamented the divide in capabilities and qualities between electronic synthesizers and traditional musical instruments, Kurzweil was inspired to create a new generation of music synthesizers capable of accurately duplicating the sounds of real instruments. Kurzweil Music Systems was founded in the same year, and in 1984, the Kurzweil K250 was unveiled. The machine was capable of imitating a number of instruments, and in tests musicians were unable to discern the difference between the Kurzweil K250 on piano mode from a normal grand piano. The recording and mixing abilities of the machine, coupled with its abilities to imitate different instruments made it possible for a single user to compose and play an entire orchestral piece.

Kurzweil Music Systems was sold to Korean musical instrument manufacturer Young Chang in 1990. As with Xerox, Kurzweil remained as a consultant for several years.

Later life

Concurrent with Kurzweil Music Systems, Ray Kurzweil created the company Kurzweil Applied Intelligence (KAI) to develop computer speech recognition systems for commercial use. The first product, which debuted in 1987, was the world’s first large-vocabulary speech recognition program, allowing human users to dictate to their computers via microphone and then have the device transcribe their speech into written text. Later, the company combined the speech recognition technology with medical expert systems to create the Kurzweil VoiceMed (today called Clinical Reporter) line of products, which allow doctors to write medical reports by speaking instead of writing. KAI exists today as Nuance Communications.

Kurzweil started Kurzweil Educational Systems in 1996 to develop new pattern-recognition-based computer technologies to help people with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia and ADD in school. Products include the Kurzweil 1000 text-to-speech converter software program, which enables a computer to read electronic and scanned text aloud to blind or visually-impaired users, and the Kurzweil 3000 program, which is a multifaceted electronic learning system that helps with reading, writing, and study skills.

During the 1990s Ray Kurzweil founded the Medical Learning Company. The company’s products included an interactive computer education program for doctors and a computer-simulated patient. Around the same time, Kurzweil started website featuring computer programs to assist the creative art process. The site used to offer free downloads of a program called AARON visual art synthesizer developed by Harold Cohennd of “Kurzweil’s Cybernetic Poet”, which automatically creates poetry. During this period he also started, a website devoted towards showcasing news of scientific developments, publicizing the ideas of high-tech thinkers and critics alike, and promoting futurist-related discussion among the general population through the Mind-X forum.

In 1999, Kurzweil created a hedge fund called “FatKat” (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies), which began trading in 2006. He has stated that the ultimate aim is to improve the performance of FatKat’s A.I. investment software program, enhancing its ability to recognize patterns in “currency fluctuations and stock-ownership trends.” He predicted in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, that computers will one day prove superior to the best human financial minds at making profitable investment decisions. In 2001, Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace released an album, titled Spiritual Machines, based on Kurzweil’s book. Kurzweil’s voice was featured in the album, reading excerpts from his book.

In June 2005, Ray Kurzweil introduced the “Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader” (K-NFB Reader) pocket-sized device consisting of a digital camera and computer unit. Like the Kurzweil Reading Machine of almost 30 years before, the K-NFB Reader is designed to aid blind people by reading written text aloud. The newer machine is portable and scans text through digital camera images, while the older machine is large and scans text through flatbed scanning.

Ray Kurzweil is currently making a movie due for release in 2010 called The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future based, in part, on his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near. Part fiction, part non-fiction, he interviews 20 big thinkers like Marvin Minsky, plus there is a B-line narrative story that illustrates some of the ideas, where a computer avatar (Ramona) saves the world from self-replicating microscopic robots.

In addition to Kurzweil’s movie, an independent, feature-length documentary was made about Kurzweil, his life, and his ideas called Transcendent Man. Filmmakers Barry and Felicia Ptolemy followed Kurzweil, documenting his global speaking tour. Premiered in 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Transcendent Man documents Ray’s quest to reveal mankind’s ultimate destiny and explores many of the ideas found in his New York Times bestselling book, The Singularity is Near, including his concept of exponential growth, radical life expansion, and how we will transcend our biology. The Ptolemys documented Ray’s stated goal of bringing back his late father using AI. The film also features critics who argue against Kurzweil’s predictions.

Kurzweil said during a 2006 C-SPAN2 interview that he was working on a new book that focused on the inner workings of the human brain and how this could be applied to building AI.

While being interviewed for a February 2009 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Kurzweil expressed a desire to construct a genetic copy of his late father, Fredric Kurzweil, from DNA within his grave site. This feat would be achieved by deploying various nanorobots to send samples of DNA back from the grave, constructing a clone of Fredric and retrieving memories and recollectionsrom Ray’s mindf his father.


Kurzweil’s first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, was published in 1990. The nonfiction work discusses the history of computer AI and also makes forecasts regarding likely future developments. Other experts in the field of AI contribute heavily to the work in the form of essays. The Association of American Publishers’ awarded it the status of Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990.

Next, Kurzweil published a book on nutrition in 1993 called The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life. The book’s main idea is that high levels of fat intake are the cause of many health disorders common in the U.S., and thus that cutting fat consumption down to 10% of the total calories consumed would be optimal for most people.

In 1998, Ray Kurzweil published The Age of Spiritual Machines, which focuses heavily on further elucidating his theories regarding the future of technology, which themselves stem from his analysis of long-term trends in biological and technological evolution. Much focus goes into examining the likely course of AI development, along with the future of computer architecture.

Kurzweil’s next book published in 2004, returned to the subject of human health and nutrition. Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever was co-authored by Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, a medical doctor and specialist in alternative medicine.

The Singularity Is Near was published in 2005. The book is currently being made into a movie starring Pauley Perrette (NCIS), and scheduled for 2010 release.

In February 2007, Ptolemaic Productions acquired the rights to The Singularity is Near, The Age of Spiritual Machines and Fantastic Voyage including the rights to Kurzweil’s life and ideas for the film Transcendent Man. The feature length documentary was directed by Barry Ptolemy.

Kurzweil’s newest book, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, a follow-up on Fantastic Voyage, was released on April 28, 2009.

The book he’s currently working on is called “How The Mind Works and How To Build One”.

Recognition and awards

Kurzweil has been called the successor and “rightful heir to Thomas Edison”, and was also referred to by Forbes as “the ultimate thinking machine.”

Kurzweil has received these awards, among others:

First place in the 1965 International Science Fair for inventing the classical music synthesizing computer.

The 1978 Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. The award is given annually to one “outstanding young computer professional” and is accompanied by a $35,000 prize. Ray Kurzweil won it for his invention of the Kurzweil Reading Machine.

The 1990 “Engineer of the Year” award from Design News.

The 1994 Dickson Prize in Science. One is awarded every year by Carnegie Mellon University to individuals who have “notably advanced the field of science.” Both a medal and a $50,000 prize are presented to winners.

The 1998 “Inventor of the Year” award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The 1999 National Medal of Technology. This is the highest award the President of the United States can bestow upon individuals and groups for pioneering new technologies, and the President dispenses the award at his discretion. Bill Clinton presented Ray Kurzweil with the National Medal of Technology during a White House ceremony in recognition of Kurzweil’s development of computer-based technologies to help the disabled.

The 2000 Telluride Tech Festival Award of Technology. Two other individuals also received the same honor that year. The award is presented yearly to people who “exemplify the life, times and standard of contribution of Tesla, Westinghouse and Nunn.”

The 2001 Lemelson-MIT Prize for a lifetime of developing technologies to help the disabled and to enrich the arts. Only one is meted out each year to highly successful, mid-career inventors. A $500,000 award accompanies the prize.

Kurzweil was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002 for inventing the Kurzweil Reading Machine. The organization “honors the women and men responsible for the great technological advances that make human, social and economic progress possible.” Fifteen other people were inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year.

The Arthur C. Clarke Lifetime Achievement Award on April 20, 2009 for lifetime achievement as an inventor and futurist in computer-based technologies.

In 2008, the Arizona-Based experimental band “The Singularity Is Near” was formed, later changing their name to “Ray Kurzweil’s Face” in 2009. They are now respected as one of the most influential musical groups in Arizona over the past several years, raising awareness about Ray’s world-changing ideas and inventions, more specifically how humans will relate to technology and the universe in the coming 4060 years.

Kurzweil has received sixteen honorary degrees from as many institutions:

Type of degree


Year awarded

Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters

Hofstra University


Honorary Doctorate of Music

Berklee College of Music


Honorary Doctorate of Science

Northeastern University


Honorary Doctorate of Science

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


Honorary Doctorate of Engineering

Merrimack College


Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters

Misericordia University


Honorary Doctorate of Science

New Jersey Institute of Technology


Honorary Doctorate of Science

Queens College, City University of New York


Honorary Doctorate of Science

Dominican College


Honorary Doctorate in Science and Humanities

Michigan State University


Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters

Landmark College


Honorary Doctorate of Science

Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Honorary Doctorate of Science

DePaul University


Honorary Doctorate of Science

Bloomfield College


Honorary Doctorate of Science

McGill University


Honorary Doctorate of Science

Clarkson University


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