He successfully predicted the emergence of the World Wide Web and a computer beating a chess champion. He invented the first print-tospeech reading machine for the blind, the first music synthesizer that could realistically recreate the grand piano, and omni-font optical character recognition (OCR). Now, Ray Kurzweil says we'll be able to eliminate fossil fuels in the next 20 years. And within the next several decades, mankind will live indefinitely.
"We will ultimately be able to transform all facets of our lives," says Kurzweil. "We will be able to become other people in virtual reality environments, such as a student becoming Benjamin Franklin in a virtual Continental Congress, or husbands and wives temporarily becoming the other to understand each other better."
Kurzweil isn't a pie in the sky dreamer. Not only have some of his predictions come true, but he already has developed several technologies that have dramatically changed lives. His predictions are based largely on the pattern recognition work he has done for 30 years. He believes his early work in pattern recognition, as well as the flatbed scanner, omni-font OCR, and large-vocabulary speaker-independent speech recognition, represent his major accomplishments.
"Pattern recognition is what the brain does well. That is still the primary strength of humans. Computer-based pattern recognition, though, is increasing in capability and will represent the heart of artificial intelligence in the next couple of decades," he says.
Life direction at age 5
By the age of five, Kurzweil knew that he would be an inventor. "I really never wavered. It was a very firm, confident thought," he says. Although his first invention, a rocket ship, never did fly, he learned to never give up.
His parents were the first major influence in his career as an inventor. They gave him Erector sets and other enrichment and construction toys. Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recognized as the father of artificial intelligence, became Kurzweil's mentor after the high schooler started corresponding with him.
In high school, Kurzweil won first prize in the International Science Fair for programming a computer he built to compose music in the style of classical composers. He taught the computer to analyze and recognize the patterns in classical compositions and then create melodies with similar patterns. He was one of 40 Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners introduced to President Johnson at a White House award ceremony.
In 1974, Kurzweil formed his first major business, Kurzweil Computer Products Inc. His initial goal was to solve the problem of teaching a computer to recognize any printed or typed characters. Rather than just match pixels, which was the common approach at that time (called "template matching"), he taught the computer the basic geometric properties of printed shapes. The result was the first "omni-font" (any font) OCR technology in 1975.
Chance meeting, rewarding business
The omni-font OCR was a solution in search of a problem until Kurzweil sat next to a blind man on an airplane. "He described to me how there wasn't too much he couldn't do, but he acknowledged one handicap: an inability to read ordinary printed materials such as his memos. So at that point, I decided to apply the OCR to a reading machine," says Kurzweil.
This application required two other technologies that didn't yet exist. Over the next year, Kurzweil developed the first CCD flatbed scanner—now a multibillion-dollar industry. That same year, he also created the first full text-to-speech synthesizer.
The result was the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, introduced in January 1976, called the Kurzweil Reading Machine. This first device was about the size of a washing machine. This summer, Kurzweil Technologies introduced the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader, the first pocket-sized, print-to-speech reading machine. It's perfect for reading restaurant menus, bank machine receipts, meeting agendas, recipes, electronic displays, signs on the wall, the backs of packages, clothing labels, and even some retail price tags. Instead of bringing the print to a machine on a desk, the blind can read all the print they encounter throughout the day.
"This work has been extremely gratifying," says Kurzweil. "It came originally from my technical interest in pattern recognition, but the leap from formulas to real changes in people's lives is what makes inventing fulfilling."
Kurzweil says early forms of visual pattern recognition technology weren't intelligent, only matching precise shapes. He was the first designer to integrate artificial intelligence into visual pattern recognition. "That is probably my most influential project. Ultimately it is pattern recognition that will enable us to meet the full range of AI challenges."
Future and not-so-future projects
In the next decade, he'll be focusing on creating virtual reality systems. In fact, he just received a patent on a virtual reality presentation technique. "Images on eyeglasses will create the illusion of being in another environment. It will feel quite real," he says, describing virtual reality technology that will emerge in several years.
"We can create imaginary environments so you could take a walk on a Mediterranean beach. Eventually, virtual reality would have even the tactile sense. You could change your body, be someone else—like the student becoming Benjamin Franklin or the time I became Ramona (his VR creation) at the 2001 TED conference. It would be a powerful communication tool, basically extending the telephone to other senses."