Raymond Kurzweil was born and raised in the New York City borough of Queens. His father, Frederic Kurzweil, was a musician and composer; his mother was a visual artist. The couple had fled their home in Austria as Hitler’s Germany engulfed Central Europe. Settling in New York City, they raised young Ray and his sister in an atmosphere full of music, art and ideas. Although young Ray enjoyed playing the piano, he also knew from an early age that he wanted to be a scientist and inventor, and he pursued these interests with a single-minded enthusiasm.
Kurzweil was 12 years old when he became fascinated by the possibilities of the computer. An uncle who worked as an engineer at Bell Labs introduced him to the basics of computer science and arranged for him to work with a computer owned by New York University. By age 15, he had written his first computer program. In high school he created a pattern recognition software program that he used to analyze works of classical music. The program could then create compositions imitating the style of a given composer. His invention won first prize in the International Science Fair. Kurzweil also received a prize from Westinghouse Talent Search and was invited to the White House to be congratulated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. At age 16, he appeared on the network television program I’ve Got a Secret, performing a piano piece his computer had composed.
In his sophomore year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kurzweil designed a computer program to match high school students with appropriate colleges. Kurzweil presented potential applicants with a 300-question survey and correlated their answers with the thousands of details about the nation’s schools he had correlated in a massive database. At the time, there was only one computer in New England with enough memory to run his database, but Kurzweil created a successful business to market the service, the Select College Consulting Program. At age 20, he sold the company to educational publishers Harcourt, Brace & World for a six-figure sum, plus royalties.
After graduating with a degree in both computer science and literature (he had quickly exhausted the existing computer curriculum), he set out to start another business, Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. Building on his earlier work in pattern recognition, he developed a powerful optical character recognition (OCR) system, the first such program to be able to read any of the typical type faces in use in publishing. A casual conversation with a blind fellow passenger on an airplane trip inspired Kurzweil to apply his OCR software to the creation of a reading machine for the blind. This entailed the invention of the CCD flatbed scanner, as well as the voice-synthesizing technology to read the scanned text aloud.
The Kurzweil Reading Machine, completed in collaboration with Bell Labs, made national news when it was announced to the public in January 1976 at a news conference held with the National Federation of the Blind. The renowned musician Stevie Wonder, who is blind, heard Kurzweil discussing his invention on television and immediately purchased a sample model. A long friendship between the two men ensued.
Meanwhile, the development of OCR technology continued; by 1978, Kurzweil was selling a commercial version of his program to businesses including Lexis-Nexis. In 1980, he sold the Kurzweil Products Company. Renamed ScanSoft, it was later acquired by Xerox Corporation, with Kurzweil continuing to serve as a consultant for many years.
Kurzweil’s friend Stevie Wonder presented him with a challenge that led to his next major invention. By the 1980s, electronic synthesizers, once limited to use in avant-garde electronic music, had come to play a prominent role in popular music as well. Synthesizer technology had advanced to the point where musicians could program the devices to play sequences of virtually unlimited length and complexity, but the sounds they produced were distinctly artificial, and unsatisfactory to musicians and listeners accustomed to the rich sounds of acoustic instruments.
Wonder urged Kurzweil to devise a programmable synthesizer that could accurately emulate the sounds of keyboards, drums and orchestral instruments. In 1982, Kurzweil started a new company, Kurzweil Music Systems, to pursue this goal. At the same time, he had started yet another company, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence (KAI), to develop computer speech recognition systems.
In these years of invention and productivity, Kurzweil paid little attention to the state of his own health, but in 1983, at age 35, he was diagnosed with glucose intolerance, a predecessor of Type II diabetes and a major risk factor for heart disease. With the help of a like-minded physician, Kurzweil began to explore thorough lifestyle changes, radically altering his diet and exercise regimen to cure himself. This effort would eventually prove successful.
In 1984, Kurzweil Music Systems released its first instrument, the Kurzweil 250. Musicians were immediately impressed with its ability to emulate the sounds of acoustic instruments. In blind tests, concert pianists were unable to distinguish between Kurzweil’s instrument and a grand piano. The device and its successors have been embraced by musicians in many different genres. Many orchestral composers use them to test their creations in the studio before presenting their scores to a full orchestra. Their use has fundamentally changed the way music is composed, performed and recorded. Kurzweil’s other ventures thrived as well. KAI offered the first commercial speech recognition software in 1987. This breakthrough led to the development of speech-activated voice mail systems as well as dictation software that automatically converts a speaker’s words into written text.
Kurzweil sold his music systems company in 1990, but continued to serve as a consultant. That same year, he shared his vision of technology’s future in a book addressed to the general public, The Age of Intelligent Machines. The well-received book included a number of predictions about the development of information technology. In his 1993 book, The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, he discusses his discoveries concerning diet and exercise, and urges readers to reduce fat consumption to no more than ten percent of total calorie intake. Kurzweil maintained that this diet, combined with moderate exercise and consumption of antioxidant substances could nearly eliminate the risk of heart disease and many other ailments.
Kurzweil accurately predicted the rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s. His own website, KurzweilCyberArt.com, offered free computer programs to assist the creative process, including the AARON visual art synthesizer and the Cybernetic Poet. Another site, KurzweilAI.net, carries news and discussion of new developments in information technology. In his 1998 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil relates the future of technology to the long-term phenomenon of human evolution. He proposed a “Law of Accelerating Returns,” in which the pace of evolution and technical progress increases exponentially.
At the end of the decade, Kurzweil began to apply his expertise to the world of finance as well. In 1999, his company Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies began developing software to recognize patterns in the stock market and currency exchange. His research led him to found a hedge fund he dubbed “FatKat” (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies).
Kurzweil had already received numerous honors for his work, including the Grace Murray Hopper Award, Carnegie Mellon University’s Dickson Prize and MIT’s Inventor of the Year award. In 1999, President Clinton awarded Kurzweil the National Medal of Technology in recognition of his development of new technologies to assist the disabled. The highest honor given by the United States government for achievement in technology, the medal was presented to Kurzweil by the president in a ceremony at the White House. Still more honors were to follow.
In 2001 he received the half-million-dollar Lemelson-MIT Prize for a lifetime of developing technologies to help the disabled and to enrich the arts. The following year, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, specifically for the Kurzweil Reading Machine. In 2005, he introduced a more advanced iteration of this concept, the K-NFB Reader, named for Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Unlike the flatbed scanner-based reading machine of 1976, the K-NFB Reader is a pocket-sized device combining a digital camera and computer.
In the same year, Kurzweil published one of his most provocative books to date. In The Singularity Is Near, he predicts that in the foreseeable future computers will achieve a level of “superintelligence,” surpassing human comprehension. In this and other works, he considers the possibility that the interaction of human and artificial intelligence, along with a radical extension of human longevity, will transform our understanding of mortality.
Ray Kurzweil continues to share his ideas with the public in books, including his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, and How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, as well as in the documentary films The Singularity Is Near and Transcendent Man. In December 2012, Kurzweil was hired by Google co-founder Larry Page to “work on new projects involving machine learning and language processing.” Larry Page and Kurzweil agreed on a one-sentence job description: “to bring natural language understanding to Google.” Kurzweil received a Grammy award on February 8, 2015 recognizing his technical and creative accomplishments, particularly the Kurzweil 250 music system.
He makes his home in Burlington, Massachusetts, with his wife, Sonya Kurzweil, a psychologist and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. The Kurzweils have two children, Ethan, a venture capitalist, and Amy who is a writer and cartoonist.
Raymond Kurzweil has founded four successful businesses, all based on artificial intelligence technology he developed. He pioneered systems for optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, and speech recognition. He developed the flatbed scanner, and the first electronic keyboard to synthesize the sounds of acoustic instruments.
Today, his scanners and OCR software are standard equipment in the modern office, his synthesizers pervade popular music, his reading machines allow the blind to hear the contents of printed matter, and his voice recognition system is used in emergency rooms all over the United States. In 1999, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Clinton.
His bestselling books include The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near, in which he suggests that developments in artificial intelligence, along with advances in longevity, will permit the extension of human consciousness beyond its present biological limits.
You were still in high school when you appeared on the TV program I’ve Got a Secret. How did that come about?
Ray Kurzweil: That was sort of my first project in pattern recognition, which is a part of artificial intelligence where we try to make computers recognize patterns, which is actually the heart of human intelligence. I had a system that you could feed in melodies of a human composer, and it would recognize patterns and then create original melodies in the same style. The melodies were recognizable as sort of being a student of that composer. So the compositions would sound like a third-rate Mozart. That won first prize in the International Science Fair, and the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, it was one of the winners. I went on I’ve Got a Secret. I went on and played a piece of music and then whispered in Steve Allen’s ear, “I built my own computer.” And he said, “Well, that’s impressive. What’s that have to do with that piece of music you just played?” And I said, “Well, the computer composed the piece of music.” And then Bess Myerson, who was a former Miss America, was stumped, but then Henry Morgan, who was a film star, actually guessed it, which was pretty insightful. Computers were not that well known at that time.
How did you end up even being on that program?
Ray Kurzweil: Well, I guess that stemmed from the science contest. They look for interesting projects.
Was it interesting for you to be on television at the age of 16 with your project?
Ray Kurzweil: Yeah, that was exciting.
That was my first exposure in sort of being able to communicate with a large audience. It gave me some of the excitement of inventing, being able to move people with projects. That didn’t directly help people in their lives, but that’s the excitement of inventing as opposed to discovering science. Technology builds on science, but it really applies it to a way that moves people, and it is a form of magic. You take just a mundane set of materials, or a mundane set of computer instructions, but in just the right combination it does something that delights people, or maybe even helps them or changes their lives. And that’s the exciting aspect of inventing for me.
That’s what motivates you?
Ray Kurzweil: Right. That’s the thrill, to go from sort of these dry formulas on a blackboard to actually seeing transformations in people’s lives. That nexus is exciting.
As an inventor, you not only create new technologies but new markets. There’s a practical consequence, a use for what you do. One example that’s often used is your relationship with Stevie Wonder. Can you tell us something about that?
Ray Kurzweil: I have tried to pick technologies and applications that would have an impact on people’s lives, whether it’s creating music or helping overcome disabilities. That’s what really excites me, that linkage between dry formulas on a blackboard and the power of these ideas to transform people’s lives. It’s something that I enjoy contributing to, and working with my colleagues to accomplish.
The reading machine for the blind actually started out as a technology — a solution in search of a problem. We had this omni-font optical character recognition that could recognize print in any type style, though we didn’t really know what it would be good for. And I happened to sit next to this blind guy on a plane, and he explained about the blind — the reading problem that blind people have — that very little is available in Braille and talking books, and he’d like to be able to access ordinary printed material. And so that then seemed like a very exciting — like, wow, we could actually apply this technology to that problem. Stevie Wonder happened to see me on a TV show, I think the Today show, demonstrating this when we announced it, and just literally dropped by and picked up our post-production unit.
That was a quarter of a century ago, 1976, so we’ve had a long-term friendship. He’s actually quite sophisticated about technology, and he’s the one who articulated the problem in the world of music that led to my starting Kurzweil Music Systems.
On the one hand there were these exciting control techniques, computerized methods where you could — a computer could remember what you played, and you could play multiple tracks and play a whole orchestra by yourself, but the sounds that you had to work with were very thin at that time, 1982. When you selected piano, it didn’t sound like a piano, it sounded like an organ. When you selected violin, it sounded like an organ. Wouldn’t it be great if we could combine these very popular control methods with the beautiful, rich, complex sounds of acoustic instruments? I felt that — again, single-processing pattern recognition — these fields could solve those problems. Stevie Wonder agreed to be our musical advisor, and we started Kurzweil Music. Then in 1984, we had an instrument that when you selected piano, it really did sound like a piano. We were able to fool concert pianists as to whether they were listening to a piano or a Kurzweil 250. I’ve continued to collaborate with Stevie Wonder over these several decades on different technologies, both in the disabilities field and the music field, both areas where technology has played a strong role.
You’re often described as a futurist. As you look ahead into the 21st century, what do you see as the problems and challenges that face us?
Ray Kurzweil: What I see is quite different than what a lot of people see, because I think a major failing of even some very thoughtful observers is the real implications of the acceleration of technological change. If you say that technical change is accelerating, people are quick to agree with that. It’s just sort of “motherhood and apple pie.” But people don’t really incorporate that. I call this the “intuitive linear view” versus the “historical exponential view.” People assume that in the next 50 years we’ll see 50 years of progress at today’s rate of progress. I’ve had these arguments. People will say, “Oh well, we won’t see nanotechnology self-replicators for a hundred years. I say, “Well yes, a hundred years at today’s rate of progress, which will take 25 years.” We’re doubling the paradigm shift rate every ten years. I mean, that’s something I pulled out of the air. I’ve been studying this. I have models of it. That means the 21st century will not be a hundred years of progress. It will be 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress. And the 20th century was not a hundred years, but was 25 years at today’s rate of progress because we weren’t going at this rate of progress for the whole century. So the 21st century will be a thousand times greater in terms of technological change than the 20th century, and the 20th century was pretty profound. That’s quite a different view than if you just think in linear terms, which most people do, despite the fact that they lived through this acceleration, but they assume that it’s going to stop or they just don’t think about it.
We’re going to be profoundly redefining our own bodies, our own brains. We’re going to be expanding our intelligence, our intimate connection with intelligent machines. We’re going to be spending a lot of time in virtual reality, which will incorporate all of our senses. And I guess it’s complicated to explain all of that, but I do see the future will be very different, but it will be an extension of human civilization. It’ll all be derivative of human intelligence and will reflect human values, and it’ll be an expansion, a continued expansion, really, because we’ve been growing exponentially. Our knowledge is growing exponentially, and we will continue that through the 21st century. It’s really the next step in evolution. Technological evolution actually continued biological evolution. You can see that very clearly. The first paradigm shifts took billions of years, and it sped it and was taken over by technological evolution, and now paradigm shifts take just a few years’ time. And the next step in evolution will be enhancing our own intelligence through intimate connection with machine intelligence.
It is utterly mind-boggling. Where does it all lead? Where does it end up? Is it possible to see far enough ahead?
Ray Kurzweil: We can describe certain aspects of it, but we can’t actually imagine all the innovation.
We see very powerful trends, and we see that, for example, computer power has been growing exponentially, and people say, “Okay, but Moore’s Law’s going to come to an end.” But in fact, what I’ve seen is that every time one paradigm comes to an end, we replace it with another one. We’ve done that already five times in computation. So we can, I think, anticipate enormous power in all of these technologies. What they’ll be applied for? We can’t imagine all of the innovation that will occur. But I see it as fundamentally a spiritual process. The word God is really an ideal of — and has been described as — infinite intelligence, creativity, beauty, love, all-knowing. And what we see in evolution is that intelligence, beauty, creativity grows at an exponential rate and gets greater and greater — never becomes infinite but becomes enormously more powerful growing exponentially, therefore becoming closer or more God-like, but never really reaching that ideal. So it’s moving in that spiritual direction. I see evolution as a spiritual process, and I see technology as the cutting edge of that process. It is the human species which is different from any other species in that other species use tools, but they don’t evolve over generations the way ours do, taking the next step in evolution by merging with our technology and continuing to grow in this sort of exponentially accelerating condition.