Ray walked on stage, played a composition on an old upright piano, and then whispered to I've Got a Secret host Steve Allen "I built my own computer".
"Well that's impressive," Steve Allen replied, "but what does that have to do with the piece you just played?" Ray then whispered the rest of his secret: "The computer composed the piece I just played." During the yes or no questions, former Miss America Bess Myerson was stumped, but film star Henry Morgan, the second celebrity panelist, guessed Ray's secret.
This high school project was Ray Kurzweil's first endeavor in the field of "pattern recognition," which Ray describes as "that part of the AI field where we teach computers to recognize abstract patterns, a capability that dominates human thinking." Ray programmed his computer to analyze the patterns in musical compositions by famous composers and then compose original new melodies in a similar style. For the project, Ray won First Prize in the International Science Fair, and was one of the 40 Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners that got to meet President Lyndon Johnson in a White House award ceremony.
As a sophomore at MIT, Ray started and ran a business matching up high school kids with colleges using a computer program he had written. Named the Select College Consulting Program, Ray and his small company paid $1,000 an hour to rent time on the only computer in New England with enough memory to fit the database comprising 2 million facts on 3,000 colleges they had created. Kids, delighted with the colleges the program had suggested, sent appreciative letters. But a few parents were furious that the program had failed to recommend Harvard or other Ivy League schools. For the first time, Ray experienced the ability of computers to affect peoples' lives. The company was sold to Harcourt, Brace & World, a New York publisher, for $100,000 plus royalties.
In 1974, Ray started his first major enterprise, Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. (KCP), to pursue his interest in pattern recognition, attacking the then classical and unsolved problem of teaching a computer to identify printed or typed characters regardless of typestyle and printing quality. Existing systems could only recognize certain special fonts (such as Courier, OCR A). Ray and his colleagues taught the computer how to extract the abstract qualities of letter shapes, defining what essential properties made, for example, all capital A's different from all capital B's.
Ray and his team created the first "omni-font" (any font) Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This new technology became a solution in search of a problem. A chance plane flight sitting next to a blind gentleman convinced Ray that the most exciting application of this new technology would be to create a machine that could read printed and typed documents out loud, thereby overcoming the reading handicap of blind and visually impaired individuals.This goal introduced new hurdles, since there were no readily available flat-bed scanners or speech synthesizers in 1974. So in addition to the omni-font OCR, Ray and his colleagues developed the first CCD flat-bed scanner and the first full text-to-speech synthesizer and combined these three technologies into the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind.
Ray, along with leaders of the National Federation of the Blind, announced the Kurzweil Reading Machine at a press conference on January 13, 1976, which was covered by all of the networks and leading print publications. Walter Cronkite used it to deliver his signature sign-off, "And that's the way it was, January 13, 1976."
Stevie Wonder happened to catch Ray demonstrating the Kurzweil Reading Machine on the Today Show, and dropped by Kurzweil Computer Products to pick up their first production unit. This led to a long-term friendship between the inventor and the musical star, which led to Ray Kurzweil's subsequent innovations in computer-based music.
In 1978, Kurzweil Computer Products introduced a commercial version of the Kurzweil OCR, which was used by Lexis and Nexis to build their on-line legal and news information services. In 1980, Ray sold the company to Xerox, which saw the scanning and OCR technology as providing a path back from the world of paper to the world of electronics. Ray continued as a consultant to this division of Xerox through 1995. Today, 29 years after its inception, the OCR originally developed by Ray Kurzweil and his team - now called Xerox TextBridge - still continues as a market leader. KCP is now ScanSoft, a public, partially owned subsidiary of Xerox.
In 1982, as he was showing Ray a new studio he had built in Los Angeles, Stevie Wonder lamented the state of affairs of musical instruments. On the one hand there was the world of acoustic instruments (e.g., piano, guitar, violin), which provided rich complex sounds, but were difficult to play, and suffered from a wide range of limitations. On the other hand, the world of computer-based instruments allowed advanced control techniques such as multi-track sequencing and layering, but was only capable of creating thin synthetic sounds.
"Wouldn't it be great," Stevie asked Ray, "if we could use the extraordinarily flexible computer-control methods on the beautiful sounds of acoustic instruments." The result of this challenge was Ray's 1982 founding of Kurzweil Music Systems with Stevie Wonder as musical advisor. In 1984, Kurzweil Music introduced the Kurzweil 250, the first computer-based instrument that could realistically recreate the musical response of the grand piano and other orchestral instruments. In A/B tests, musicians were unable to distinguish the Kurzweil 250 from a concert grand piano. With this technology, a teenager could play an entire orchestra or rock band in her bedroom.
Ray sold Kurzweil Music Systems to Young Chang, a large Korean musical instrument company, in 1990 and remained as an active consultant through 1994. The Kurzweil Music Systems division of Young Chang continues today as one of the market leaders in computer-based musical instruments, marketed in more than 40 countries.
Ray also started Kurzweil Applied Intelligence (KAI) in 1982 to develop computer-based speech recognition. The company introduced the first commercially marketed, large- vocabulary speech-recognition system in 1987. The company also combined its speech recognition technology with expert systems for the creation of medical reports. Its Kurzweil VoiceMed products (now called Kurzweil Clinical Reporter) allows doctors to create medical reports by talking with their computers. The Kurzweil systems are now used in ten percent of the emergency rooms in the United States and in many other medical specialties. KAI continues today as part of ScanSoft (originally Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc.).
Ray started his fourth company, Kurzweil Educational Systems, in 1996. This company quickly became dominant in the print-to-speech reading technology field. In August 1998, Ray and his colleagues received the first $150,000 SAP/Stevie Wonder "Product of the Year" Vision Award for the Kurzweil 1000 Reading System. The Kurzweil Foundation, which is Ray's private foundation, used these funds for the Kurzweil Foundation's scholarship program, providing scholarships to worthy blind students.
Ray's latest ventures include FAT KAT (Financial Accelerating Transactions - Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies), which is applying evolutionary algorithms to stock market decisions with the goal of creating an artificially intelligent financial analyst. Medical Learning Company has created a simulated patient for doctor education and provides online continuing medical education systems for the American Board of Family Practice, the New England Journal of Medicine, and other leading medical and health organizations. KurzweilCyberArt.com provides software to assist the creative process, including AARON, a cybernetic art program, and Ray Kurzweil's Cybernetic Artist. KurzweilAI.net is a leading resource on the Web for advanced technologies, providing over 500 articles from 70 "big thinkers" and a daily electronic newsletter.
In 1990, Ray's first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, was published by the MIT Press, and received the award for the Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990 by the Association of American Publishers. The predictions in this book, which Ray wrote in 1988, included 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. These and many others of Ray's predictions have proven to be quite accurate.
In 1993, Ray's second book, The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, How to Eliminate Virtually All Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer, was published by Crown Publishers. The book stemmed from Ray's successfully curing himself of type II Diabetes through a nutritional program he had researched himself. Ray is currently working on another health book, A Short Guide to a Long Life, coauthored with Terry Grossman, M.D.
Ray's best-selling book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (Viking hard cover, Penguin paperback) extends Ray's prophetic blueprint to what George Gilder calls the "metamorphic moment" when computers exceed the full range of human intelligence, which Ray sees as only a few decades away. This book has been published in nine languages and achieved the #1 best selling book on Amazon.com in the categories of "Science" and "Artificial Intelligence."
Ray Kurzweil received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize (view the video), the nation's largest award in invention and innovation, and was inducted in 2002 into the National Inventor Hall of Fame. He also received the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony. He has also received scores of other national and international awards. He is the recipient of the 1994 Dickson Prize, which is Carnegie Mellon University's top science prize, given to one individual each year. Since its inception in 1970, only one other person has received the Dickson Prize in the field of computer science. In 1990, Ray was voted Engineer of the Year by the more than one million readers of Design News Magazine and received their third annual Technology Achievement Award. In 1988, he was named Inventor of the Year by MIT and the Boston Museum of Science. He was named Honorary Chairman for Innovation of the White House Conference on Small Business by President Reagan in 1986 and has received honors from Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Johnson.
He has received twelve honorary Doctorates in science, engineering, music and humane letters from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Hofstra University and other leading colleges and universities. He has received the Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machine. He has received seven national and international film awards, including the CINE Golden Eagle Award and the Gold Medal for Science Education from the International Film and TV Festival of New York.
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