Most people try to forget about the worries of the day when they sleep.
But Raymond Kurzweil uses sleep time to solve problems that he “assigns himself,” such as algorithmic puzzles, business challenges, or even interpersonal issues. In this “lucid” dreamlike state, he has developed inventions and written speeches within minutes.
He is credited with many invention “firsts” that span the fields of pattern recogntion, speech technology, music, and the visual arts. Among them are the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind; the first text-to-speech synthesizer; the first electronic musical instrument capable of reproducing the sounds of orchestral instruments, and the first commercially-marketed large vocabulary speech-recognition system. His latest innovation, a virtual recording and performing artist called “Ramona,” represents an advance in virtual reality technology. Add his two books about the future of computing to the remarkable list of Kurzweil’s accomplishments and one understands why this visionary was selected this year to win the world’s largest single award for invention and innovation — the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.
The son of artists — his mother a painter and his father a musician and composer — Kurzweil has inherited a passion for the arts that infuses his wide-ranging inventions. As a boy, he was engrossed in imaginative projects. At eight, he built a puppet theater with mechanical parts to change the scenery.
At 16, he had built and programmed his own computer to compose original melodies, which were based on patterns in well-known classical works. This invention garnered him an appearance on the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret,” where he revealed to the audience and host Steve Allen that he had built a computer that composed the piece that he had just played on a piano. This computer also earned him the opportunity to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson, as one of 40 Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners, and first prize in the International Science Fair.
As an undergraduate at MIT in 1965, Kurzweil took all nine computer courses that were offered at the time. There, he continued his friendship with artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, who had begun mentoring Kurzweil a few years earlier. He worked laboriously on the one main computer that was made available for all students and professors.
At age 19, Kurzweil began his first company, where he invented the first computer-based system for matching high school students with colleges. He later sold the company to Harcourt Brace & World for $100,000 plus royalties — enough to pay his way through MIT and help support his ailing father’s medical expenses. While an undergraduate, he met fellow student and now business partner, Aaron Kleiner, with whom he has since founded eight companies. Kurzweil graduated from MIT in 1970 with degrees in computer science and creative writing, having studied with American playwright Lillian Hellman.
In 1974, Kurzweil founded his first major enterprise, Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. It was here that he and his team created the first “omni-font” (i.e., “any” type font) optical character recognition technology, which enabled computers to read and recognize printed or typed characters, regardless of typestyle and print quality. In 1975, Kurzweil was inspired by a chance meeting with a blind man on an airplane to apply his revolutionary technology to develop the first machine that could read printed and typed documents aloud.
Later that year, Kurzweil and his partners invented two additional technologies that made possible the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which converts print to speech, and which was launched jointly with the National Federation of the Blind. The machine has helped thousands of blind people read printed materials.
After hearing about it on TV in 1976, legendary performer Stevie Wonder contacted Kurzweil and bought the first reading machine. “(It) was a breakthrough that changed my life,” says Wonder, who helped nominate Kurzweil for the Lemelson-MIT Prize. “With the Kurzweil Reading Machine, I could read anything I wanted with complete privacy: music, lyrics, letters from my children, the latest best sellers and magazines, memos from my business associates. It gave blind people the one thing that everyone treasures, which is independence.”
In addition to his entrepreneurial achievements, Kurzweil started a foundation to provide scholarships to blind students, and continues to write about artificial intelligence. In his landmark book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, Kurzweil predicted that a computer would beat a world chess champion before 1998, the Soviet Union would collapse and a computer network would link tens of millions of individuals (the Web).
All of these predictions have come to pass. In The Age of Spiritual Intelligence, When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Kurzweil asserts that before the year 2030 the distinction between biological and nonbiological intelligence will begin to blur. He also predicts that computers will disappear by 2009 by integrating with our clothing and eyeglasses. By 2030, nanobot technology — robots the size of human blood cells — will travel through capillaries and result in non-invasive scanning of the brain.
Kurzweil has received diverse awards for his creative endeavors including the National Medal of Technology, The White House Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence, awards from three U.S. Presidents, and ten honorary doctorates.