Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil by Sabrina Smelko

Ray Kurzweil (b. 1948) is an American author, inventor and futurist. He is involved in fields such as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments. He is the author of several books on health, artificial intelligence (AI), transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism.

Ray Kurzweil grew up in Queens, NY. He was born to secular Jewish parents who had escaped Austria just before the onset of World War II, and he was exposed via Unitarian Universalism to a diversity of religious faiths during his upbringing. His father was a musician and composer and his mother was a visual artist. His uncle, an engineer at Bell Labs, taught young Ray the basics of computer science.

In 1963, at age fifteen, he wrote his first computer program. Later in high school he created a sophisticated pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles. The capabilities of this invention were so impressive that, in 1965, he was invited to appear on the CBS television program ‘I’ve Got a Secret,’ where he performed a piano piece that was composed by a computer he also had built.

In 1968, during his sophomore year at MIT, Kurzweil started a company that used a computer program to match high school students with colleges. The program, called the Select College Consulting Program, was designed by him and compared thousands of different criteria about each college with questionnaire answers submitted by each student applicant. When he was 20, he sold the company or $100,000 plus royalties.

In 1974, Kurzweil started the company Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. and led development of the first omni-font optical character recognition system—a computer program capable of recognizing text written in any normal font. Before that time, scanners had only been able to read text written in a few fonts.

He used his OCR software to develop a reading machine, which would allow blind people to understand written text by having a computer read it to them aloud. This device required the invention of two enabling technologies—the CCD flatbed scanner and the text-to-speech synthesizer. Development of these technologies was completed at other institutions such as Bell Labs

In 1976, the finished product was unveiled during a news conference headed by him and the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. Called the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the device covered an entire tabletop. It gained him mainstream recognition: on the day of the machine’s unveiling, Walter Cronkite used the machine to give his signature soundoff, ‘And that’s the way it is, January 13, 1976.’ Musician Stevie Wonder heard a demonstration of the device and purchased the first production version, beginning a lifelong friendship between himself and Kurzweil.

Kurzweil’s next major business venture began in 1978, when Kurzweil Computer Products began selling a commercial version of the optical character recognition computer program. LexisNexis was one of the first customers, and bought the program to upload paper legal and news documents onto its nascent online databases.

Kurzweil’s next business venture was in the realm of electronic music technology. After a 1982 meeting with Stevie Wonder, in which the latter lamented the divide in capabilities and qualities between electronic synthesizers and traditional musical instruments, Kurzweil was inspired to create a new generation of music synthesizers capable of accurately duplicating the sounds of real instruments. Kurzweil Music Systems was founded in the same year, and in 1984, the Kurzweil K250 was unveiled.

The machine was capable of imitating a number of instruments, and in tests musicians were unable to discern the difference between the Kurzweil K250 on piano mode from a normal grand piano.The recording and mixing abilities of the machine, coupled with its abilities to imitate different instruments made it possible for a single user to compose and play an entire orchestral piece.

Concurrent with Kurzweil Music Systems, Kurzweil created the company Kurzweil Applied Intelligence (KAI) to develop computer speech recognition systems for commercial use. The first product, which debuted in 1987, was an early speech recognition program.

Kurzweil started Kurzweil Educational Systems in 1996 to develop new pattern-recognition-based computer technologies to help people with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia and ADD in school. Products include the Kurzweil 1000 text-to-speech converter software program, which enables a computer to read electronic and scanned text aloud to blind or visually impaired users, and the Kurzweil 3000 program, which is a multifaceted electronic learning system that helps with reading, writing, and study skills.

During the 1990s Kurzweil founded the Medical Learning Company. The company’s products included an interactive computer education program for doctors and a computer-simulated patient. Around the same time, Kurzweil started KurzweilCyberArt.com—a website featuring computer programs to assist the creative art process. The site used to offer free downloads of a program called AARON—a visual art synthesizer developed by Harold Cohen—and of ‘Kurzweil’s Cybernetic Poet,’ which automatically creates poetry. During this period he also started KurzweilAI.net, a website devoted towards showcasing news of scientific developments, publicizing the ideas of high-tech thinkers and critics alike, and promoting futurist-related discussion among the general population through the Mind-X forum.

In 1999, Kurzweil created a hedge fund called ‘FatKat’ (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies), which began trading in 2006. He has stated that the ultimate aim is to improve the performance of FatKat’s A.I. investment software program, enhancing its ability to recognize patterns in ‘currency fluctuations and stock-ownership trends.’ He predicted in his 1999 book, ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines,’ that computers will one day prove superior to the best human financial minds at making profitable investment decisions.

In June 2005, Kurzweil introduced the ‘Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader’ (K-NFB Reader)—a pocket-sized device consisting of a digital camera and computer unit. Like the Kurzweil Reading Machine of almost 30 years before, the K-NFB Reader is designed to aid blind people by reading written text aloud. The newer machine is portable and scans text through digital camera images, while the older machine is large and scans text through flatbed scanning.

Kurzweil’s first book, ‘The Age of Intelligent Machines,’ was published in 1990. The nonfiction work discusses the history of computer AI and also makes forecasts regarding future developments. Other experts in the field of AI contribute heavily to the work in the form of essays.

Next, Kurzweil published a book on nutrition in 1993 called ‘The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life.’ The book’s main idea is that high levels of fat intake are the cause of many health disorders common in the U.S., and thus that cutting fat consumption down to 10% of the total calories consumed would be optimal for most people.

In 1998, Kurzweil published ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines,’ which focuses heavily on further elucidating his theories regarding the future of technology, which themselves stem from his analysis of long-term trends in biological and technological evolution. Much focus goes into examining the likely course of AI development, along with the future of computer architecture.

Kurzweil’s next book published in 2004, returned to the subject of human health and nutrition. ‘Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever’ was co-authored by Terry Grossman, a medical doctor and specialist in alternative medicine.

‘The Singularity Is Near’ was published in 2005. It is an update of  ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’ and ‘The Age of Intelligent Machines.’ In it, as in the two previous versions, Kurzweil attempts to give a glimpse of what awaits us in the near future. He proposes a coming technological singularity, and how we would thus be able to augment our bodies and minds with technology.

His most recent book, ‘Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever,’ is a follow-up on ‘Fantastic Voyage, and was released in 2009.

His current book project is titled ‘How The Mind Works and How To Build One.’ He described it as focused on the inner workings of the human brain and how it can be applied to building AI.

Kurzweil is generally recognized as a public advocate for the futurist and transhumanist movements, due to his stances on life extension technologies, his efforts to forecast future advances in technology, and his interest in the concept of the technological singularity. At the same time, he has attracted significant criticism from scientists and thinkers.

Kurzweil’s central argument is derived from the predictions of Moore’s Law that the rate of innovation of computer technology is increasing not linearly but rather exponentially. According to Kurzweil’s argument, since growth in so many fields of science and technology depends upon computing power, these improvements translate into exponentially more frequent advances in non-computer sciences like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and materials science. Kurzweil refers to this concept as the ‘Law of Accelerating Returns,’ and has asserted that this is supported by a number of metrics.

Kurzweil is on the Army Science Advisory Board, has testified before Congress on the subject of nanotechnology, and has advocated that nanotechnology could solve significant global problems such as poverty, disease, and climate change. In media appearances, Kurzweil has stressed the extreme potential dangers of nanotechnology, but argues that in practice, progress cannot be stopped, and any attempt to do so will retard the progress of defensive and beneficial technologies more than the malevolent ones, increasing the danger. He suggests that the proper place of regulation is to make sure progress proceeds safely and quickly.

Kurzweil admits that he cared little for his health until age 35, when he was diagnosed with a glucose intolerance, an early form of type II diabetes (a major risk factor for heart disease). Kurzweil then found a doctor that shares his non-conventional beliefs to develop an extreme regimen involving hundreds of pills, chemical i.v. treatments, red wine and various other methods to attempt to live longer.

Kurzweil ingests ‘250 supplements, eight to 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea’ every day and drinks several glasses of red wine a week in an effort to ‘reprogram’  his biochemistry. He joined the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics company. In the event of his death, Kurzweil’s body will be chemically preserved, frozen in liquid nitrogen, and stored at an Alcor facility in the hope that future medical technology will be able to revive him.

In ‘The Singularity is Near’ he expresses his belief in a need for a new religion based on the principle of mutual respect between sentient life forms, and on the principle of respecting knowledge. This religion would not have a leader, instead being purely personal to adherents.

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