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Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil
Profile of Ray Kurzweil Biography of Ray Kurzweil Interview with Ray Kurzweil Ray Kurzweil Photo Gallery

Ray Kurzweil Interview (page: 5 / 6)

Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence

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  Ray Kurzweil

We've read that while you were a sophomore at MIT you came up with another invention. Can you tell us about that?

Ray Kurzweil: That was my first business. We matched up high school students to colleges by computer. We built this database with several millions of pieces of information about the several thousand colleges. Students would fill out a 300-question questionnaire, and we would match them up. Not tell them where to go, but tell them, "Okay, here's 15 or 20 schools that you ought to narrow your search down to, that these are really appropriate for you to research further."

What inspired you to do that?

Ray Kurzweil Interview Photo
Ray Kurzweil: Just having been through the process of applying to college, I saw it as a need. So I could feel the need for that kind of information. I saw among my fellow students how difficult a process that was. Today, there's much better information available with the Web. You can visit colleges on the Web. There's just much better information. Back then, none of that existed, and it really was very difficult to find out about what schools matched your interests and were appropriate. I just saw lots of students struggling with that and making the wrong decisions, and felt that a computer could really be a proper tool for making that connection, providing a little bit of intelligence based on this information, and it really did work quite well. We sold it to Harcourt Brace and World, now Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the New York publishing company.

At what point did school become interesting to you? You said you considered it an obstacle when you were a kid. Did it become a more interesting challenge at some point?

Ray Kurzweil: I think school was always just an environment. When I got to MIT, that was a more satisfying environment, in that you had some really stimulating professors, and students with whom I could share ideas, and a few of my best friends still stem from that early college period. You had tremendous resources and you had a flux of ideas, and you had other people who were excited with ideas and pursuing them, and it wasn't so unusual to do that. So it was a supportive environment. Courses specifically, they were interesting, but I felt I could learn as well on my own as I could in a course, and courses were useful instruction material. There weren't actually that many computer courses when I entered MIT. There were only eight or nine of them, so I took them my first year, year-and-a-half, and then I majored in literature. They didn't have any more computer courses.

There are a lot of presumably bright kids roaming these halls.

Ray Kurzweil: Yeah, definitely. I've been talking to them.

Is the school environment harder for young men or women who exceed the intellectual expectations for people their age?

Ray Kurzweil: That's hard to say. There were some sort of anti-intellectual currents that one had to deal with when I was growing up. My kids have gone to private schools, so they haven't encountered that.

Did you have a hard time because you were smart?

Ray Kurzweil: I struggled socially in that. For one thing, I didn't have time to hang out in front of the corner drugstore. On the other hand, I always did manage to find other kids who I could share ideas with and felt compatible with. My social skills were adequate. I never felt totally out in left field.

Did you feel different from the other kids?

Ray Kurzweil: Sometimes I felt different in that I always felt I had this mission, from when I was young. So when I saw other kids struggling, and they didn't really know what they wanted to do, I didn't look down at that, but I really felt that was different. I knew what my direction was. Some people are talented in many things, or their interests are more spread out. They're not sure how to apply their skills, and I kind of knew what my mission was.

We'd like to understand where this sense of mission came from. Is it possible to explain how you had this sense of mission at such a young age?

Ray Kurzweil: I don't know. My father was very talented, got a lot of recognition as a really brilliant musician, but was very busy, and they struggled financially. They were refugees, having fled Hitler and World War II. I was on my own a lot, I think, at a very young age, even before five. I remember building a go-kart when I was three or four years old. I had to find ways to occupy myself with ideas. I'm not sure I fully understand the genesis of it. I just know that I've been that way.

Do you think you were affected, consciously or unconsciously, by your parents' experience of having to flee the Nazis and come to this country?

Ray Kurzweil: There's a sense of defiance in me, and if I have confidence in a set of ideas, to be resolute in that, to be very questioning of assumptions. I'm always questioning, really take nothing for granted. A lot of common wisdom, even what people think are the wisdoms beyond a common wisdom, I'm constantly questioning my own assumptions and looking for some deeper understanding or more comprehensive framework, and a feeling that applying human thought can overcome any obstacle, and a real confidence in that. It can take a lot of effort, but there's a confidence in the power of just applying your attention to any kind of problem, from an interpersonal issue to solving some of humankind's major challenges. Not just myself, but I believe that our species has that power.

There are a lot of people in this world who are smart, who have potential, who have gifts, talent, but they don't necessarily succeed. How do you explain your success at doing what you do, where others have failed?

Ray Kurzweil: Talent is really just one prerequisite to success. There's a lot of other factors. Certainly luck had something to do with it, and a lot of factors beyond our own efforts, in terms of having the right types of support and opportunities, and also picking the right problem. Einstein, after a few successes, picked a problem that we now know he was destined to fail at. So brilliantly pursuing a problem that you can't succeed in is -- it's pick the right problems at the right time. But most importantly, I think it's persistence, and we see again and again, whether it's in the political sphere or science, people who are really relentless about their mission -- and can see the end result even more real than what we consider concrete reality, and follow that mission with great confidence -- succeed. Very often people give up too quickly. They meet a few obstacles and think, "Oh well, that didn't work." But that confidence doesn't come from just sort of mindlessly plowing ahead. It really comes from being able to envision a reality that doesn't exist and seeing the benefit of it. So imagination is important.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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