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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 Biography

Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence

Ray Kurzweil Date of birth: February 12, 1948

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  Ray Kurzweil

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.

Ray Kurzweil Biography Photo
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.

Ray Kurzweil Biography Photo
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.

Ray Kurzweil Biography Photo
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.

Ray Kurzweil Biography Photo
Kurzweil accurately predicted the rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s. His own website,, offered free computer programs to assist the creative process, including the AARON visual art synthesizer and the Cybernetic Poet. Another site,, 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.

Ray Kurzweil Biography Photo
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 a large public in books including Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, as well as in the documentary films The Singularity Is Near and Transcendent Man. He makes his home in Burlington, Massachusetts, with his wife, Sonya. The Kurzweils have two children, Ethan and Amy.

This page last revised on May 22, 2012 15:14 EDT
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