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Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil
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Ray Kurzweil Interview

Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence

June 17, 2000
Scottsdale, Arizona

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  Ray Kurzweil

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.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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 adviser, 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.

Your father was a musician. What would he think of these music systems?

Ray Kurzweil Interview Photo
Ray Kurzweil: He sort of foreshadowed my combining computers and music. He had a fascination with some of the early synthesizers in the 1960s. He died in 1970. He said that someday you will combine computers and music. He saw an affinity, both in the ability of computers to create sound and the ability of computers to control sound. He saw that there was a natural affinity there for those two worlds.

As a musician, he did not resist the computer?

Ray Kurzweil: No, not at all. He felt that music has always used the most advanced methods available. In the 19th century, the ultimate in the crafts, woodmaking crafts and metal crafts, were used to make instruments like the piano. The piano action is a very complex mechanical linkage, and it's the ultimate in 19th century technology. So we've always used advanced technologies in all of the arts, particularly in music, and since music has a relationship to mathematics, it has a linkage to science and technology.

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