By all accounts, Ray Kurzweil is a genius — a “restless genius,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Forbes called him the “ultimate thinking machine,” while PBS picked him as one of 16 “Revolutionaries Who Made America” — a list that included legends like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. You know those names every time you flick on a light or jump into a car, but despite helping the blind to read, transforming music and contributing major ideas to the field of artificial intelligence, he doesn’t yet stand out among the Pantheon of inventors.
Why? Unlike the other greats, he’s still alive, as prolific as ever. In fact, you use his innovations every day — whether the CCD flatbed scanner, text-to-voice translation software or synthesized musical tones. Or, perhaps you’ve read one of his five best-selling books, which discuss futurist ideas such as the age of intelligent machines or “singularity,” a point in 2045 where technology outstrips our ability to comprehend it.
Einstein once said, “Knowledge is limited, but imagination encircles the world.” And if imagination fuels innovation, Kurzweil’s tank rarely dips below full. The sheer volume and reach of his accomplishments underscores the importance of focus and commitment to turn visionary dreams into concrete realities.
With natural curiosity, a prodigious imagination and the courage to believe in seemingly far-fetched ideas, Kurzweil transformed from a kid who loved magic and science fiction to an influential inventor, entrepreneur and futurist.
“What we spend our time on is probably the most important decision we make,” he told the New York Times. While that’s generally true for most of us, it is especially true for him.
Kurzweil, born on February 12, 1948 in Queens, New York, grew up in a creative, stimulating household. His father, a musician and composer, and his mother, a visual artist, had fled to the U.S. from Austria during Hitler’s rise in central Europe. While the family was artistically inclined, scientific thinking was strong, as well. His grandmother was one of the first women in Europe to earn a doctorate in chemistry, while his uncle worked as an engineer at Bell Labs, then the American laboratory of innovation. As a boy growing up in the ’50s, he was obsessed with science fiction, and then in computing devices, learning to write his first program at the age of 12.
At 15-years-old, he stumbled on an idea he would pursue with single-minded enthusiasm for much of his life: computer pattern recognition, which aims to offer a reasonable answer for several possible inputs and do a “most likely” match.
In high school, he won first prize in the International Science Fair by creating software to analyze works of classical music, finding patterns and then imitating the style of those composers. A teenaged Kurzweil even appeared on the TV show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” to debut his computer-composed piano piece.
He then studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and began to show an entrepreneurial bent. As a sophomore, he developed software to match high school students with colleges. Since high-powered computers were scarce at the time, his fledgling company paid $1,000 an hour to rent the then-only mainframe in New England with enough power to manage his database of two million facts on 3,000 colleges. The company was later sold to Harcourt, Brace & World, a New York publisher, for $100,000 plus royalties.
“I put myself through college and helped support my parents,” he told The American Foundation for the Blind in an interview. “My father was ill at that point, with heart disease.”
In 1970, he received dual degrees in computer science and creative writing, satisfying his natural scientific curiosity and a love of the arts. Those early experiences cemented the values that would characterize his career: a curious mind, the importance of resources and having the courage of his convictions.
Today, Kurzweil is often called the next Edison, which is fitting since his early innovations echoed Edison’s mantra: “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” He doesn’t just have the gift of daring imagination and technical facility, but the ability to make those visions concrete as an entrepreneur. Even as a businessman, he reveals a certain creativity, able to draw inspiration from the world and people around him, as he transmutes it to often life-changing inventions.
In 1973, at 25-years-old, Kurzweil started his first serious company, Kurzweil Computer Products, to expand on his early interest in pattern and character recognition. At the time, systems could only recognize a select-few fonts, so he developed a way to teach computers to identify printed or typed characters — creating the first “omni-font” recognition software — regardless of font and printing quality.
He had solved the character recognition issue, but he didn’t know how to apply his technology.
That changed after a chance meeting with a blind man sitting next to him on a flight. When Kurzweil started talking to him about his invention, his flight companion convinced him to create a machine that could read printed and typed documents aloud, helping the blind overcome the reading gap.
With that conversation in mind, Kurzweil developed the first full text-to-speech synthesizer, and then combined it with character recognition technology to create the first print-to-speech reading machine. When he joined with leaders of the National Federation of the Blind to announce the Kurzweil Reading Machine, all major news outlets covered the event. Walter Cronkite even used it to deliver his signature sign-off, “And that’s the way it was, January 13, 1976.”
That company, which became Nuance, would go on to create Apple’s Siri. But serendipity didn’t end there.
In 1976, Stevie Wonder caught a demonstration of the reading machine on the “Today Show,” and became its first customer, kicking off a long-term friendship between the two. They would see each other on both coasts, and talk about issues that technology could solve — both for blindness and music. Then, in 1982, as Wonder was showing Kurzweil his new studio, called Wonderland, he told him about the difficulty in integrating rich-sounding acoustic instruments to emerging music technology. Acoustic instruments, like guitar, piano and violin — 19th century technology, really — created beautiful sounds of choice. But computerized tones, which can be played and manipulated in interesting ways, were very thin and electrical.
Wouldn’t it be great if powerful control methods could be used on beautiful acoustic instruments?
Kurzweil thought about it. He knew it was feasible using his field of expertise, pattern recognition, he could teach computers to recognize the real salient patterns to make a piano sound like a piano.
“So I said, okay, we could do this, why don’t you work with us?” Kurzweil said in an interview. “We’ll start a company — Kurzweil Music Systems — and [Wonder] can be the musical advisor.”
They began to work together. Kurzweil would send Wonder early prototypes, and Wonder would give him feedback. In 1984, they introduced the Kurzweil 250, recognized as the first electronic musical instrument that realistically recreated the musical response of orchestral instruments. It was so successful, in fact, that musicians couldn’t distinguish it from a concert grand piano.
His friendship with Wonder and his affinity for problem solving surely fueled the creation, but the innovation had roots in his early life.
“My father was a musician, and he had to hire an orchestra and raise money just to hear his compositions,” he told Time in an interview. “Now, a kid in her dorm room can do that with her synthesizer and computer.”
In 1988, Wonder played the Kurzweil 250 in a concert with George Michael and Diana Ross, and, though, Young Chang acquired the company in the ’90s, its Kurzweil division continues today as one of the market leaders in computer-based musical instruments, marketed in more than 40 countries.
Kurzweil remained prolific as he moved into the ’80s. He continued to find applications for his inventions in the medical and educational fields, and he also developed evolutionary algorithms for stock market decisions. But something else was happening: the idea of artificial intelligence began to edge closer to reality. By the late-80s, exploding computing use and advancements began to have profound effects on how we live and work. Pioneers recognized that increasing computational power, along with innovations like object and speech recognition, greatly enhanced the development of artificial intelligence.
After years exploring and applying pattern recognition, Kurzweil and others like John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky and Alan Turing began to turn their imaginations and efforts towards AI — excited by the possibilities of machine consciousness.
Several of Kurzweil’s ideas traced back to his high school and college projects of pattern recognition, which he described as “teaching computers to recognize abstract patterns, a capability that dominates human thinking,” but as the field picked up steam, he shifted to writing and theorizing about the future of AI.
Initially, his ideas sounded outlandish and straight out of the sci-fi novels he loved as a boy. But, in fact, several predictions of his first book, “The Age of Intelligent Machines” — including the emergence of the World Wide Web, the taking of the world chess championship by a computer by 1998 and the dominance of intelligent weapons in warfare — became realities.
In another of his best-selling books, “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” he developed the basic idea that technology grows at an exponential rate.
As an undergrad, he shared a computer that took up half a building. But today, the chip inside any cell phone is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful — or a billion-fold increase in price-performance computing — than the mainframe of his undergrad days.
“The speed of exponential growth is itself speeding up,” he told Think Big in an interview. “So in 25 years, these technologies will be a billion times more powerful than they are today.”
According to Kurzweil, different measures of information technology — the power of computers, our understanding the human brain, the number of bits we move around the Internet — doubles, more or less, every 12 months. So, by 2029, we will have reverse engineered, modeled and simulated all the regions of the human brain, including the complexities of emotional intelligence. Combined with the superior power of machines, we’ll be able to harness and share all of human knowledge with just a few keystrokes. At a million times faster than human language, we’ll be able to remember billions of things, accurately.
“By the 2030s, we’ll be putting millions of nanobots inside our bodies to augment our immune system, to basically wipe out disease,” he told the New York Times. We will use those nanobots — about the size of blood cells — in ways we have yet to begin to imagine.
By 2045, we will have expanded the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion-fold. Machines will then be able to improve their own software design, a milestone he calls “singularity,” starting a new revolution of our civilization.
If that idea evokes a “Terminator”-style doomsday scenario, Kurzweil said not to worry — it won’t be “us vs. them.” He believes every tool, including fire, can be used for good and evil, but the good often outweighs the evil.
“Technology has always been a double-edged sword,” he told The Times of India. “Fire kept us warm and cooked our food but was also used to burn down our villages. But there is no question that we have been helped more than we have been hurt.”
Late last year, Google lured Kurzweil to become its director of engineering. His expertise, combined with the search giant’s emphasis on AI products like Google Glass, may speed up the interaction between the real and virtual worlds.
He plans to develop a synthetic neocortex to create artificial intelligence based on biological models. Machines that use the brain as their model will have a particular edge because they can process more data, at faster rates, and with an ability to “learn” at the same time.
By partnering with research leaders like Jeff Dean, with systems and techniques of deep learning, Kurzweil said his mission at Google is to develop natural language understanding. “I can succeed at this much more readily at Google because of these technologies,” he told Wired. The days of renting the one lone supercomputer for $1,000 an hour are well behind him.
He may not be able to transcend death, but like most people, he will live on through his work and family. Kurzweil and his wife of 37 years, Sonya, have two children who show in their own ways his legacy of creativity and initiative. Ethan is a senior investing associate at Bessemer Venture Partners in Menlo Park, Calif., while daughter Amy, who writes fiction, was awarded a fellowship at the prestigious Norman Mailer Center.
“My father always worked on projects that seemed crazy at the time, but ultimately had a significant impact,” his son told SiliconBeat in a Father’s Day interview. “He taught me the importance of thinking big about what will be possible a decade from now and working backwards from that point.”
On the jacket for his popular book, “The Singularity Is Near,” Bill Gates said Kurzweil is “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.”
Kurzweil remains optimistic that technology will, on the whole, benefit humankind. “I believe our civilization is going to be vastly more intelligent and more spiritual in the decades ahead,” he told Time. “You can argue how we got here, but we are the species that goes beyond our limitations. We didn’t stay on the ground. We didn’t stay on the planet. Our species always transcends.” ♦