Raymond Kurzweil is a pioneer in the field of computer technology who developed a number of critical innovations, from the text-to-speech reading machine to the computer-based musical synthesizer.
Kurzweil began programming computers early in life. In high school, he taught his computer to recognize patterns in musical compositions by Mozart and Chopin and then create its own melodies based on their styles. This project earned first prize in the International Science Fair and a place in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which brought him to the White House to meet President Lyndon Johnson. The novelty of a computer writing classical compositions also earned Kurzweill a spot on the television show “I’ve Got a Secret,” hosted by Steve Allen in 1965.
Kurzweil attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, as a sophomore, began a business that used a computer program to match high school students with colleges. The “Select College Consulting Program,” which had to pay $1,000 an hour to use the only computer in New England with the memory to handle a database of 2 million college facts, was a success with its clients. Publisher Harcourt, Brace & World bought it for $100,000 plus royalties.
The next major project Kurzweil tackled was teaching computers to read printed or typed characters that were not the special fonts (Courier or OCR A) designed for computer recognition. He founded Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc., in 1974, where his team created the first “omni-font” Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Kurzweil used this technology to create a machine could read printed or typed documents to visually impaired people. This machine combined the omni-font OCR, the first flatbed scanner to use a charge-coupled device (CCD), and the first full text-to-speech synthesizer.
Musician Stevie Wonder was the among the first adopters of Kurzweil’s Reading Machine and developed a friendship with the inventor. In 1982, they collaborated on a project to build a machine that could use computer controls to produce the rich and complex sounds of acoustic instruments. In 1984, their company introduced the first computer-based instrument that could realistically create the sound of pianos and other orchestral instruments.
Another major Kurzweil innovation of the 1980s was in computer-based speech recognition. Kurzweil Applied Intelligence released the first commercial speech-recognition system in 1987, and developed specialized system for medical practitioners allowing them to create medical reports on their computers.
In 1996, Kurzweill started a fourth company, Kurzweil Educational Systems, to create and market print-to-speech reading technology targeted to visually-impaired students.
Along with leading these technology companies, Kurzweil has become known as a futurist. His first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), has been recognized for the accuracy of its predictions about the course of computer technology in the 1990s and early 2000s, including the emergence of the World Wide Web, the victory of a computer over a world chess champion by 1998, and the use of intelligent weapons in warfare. His 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, predicts a moment in the near future when the lines between humans and computers will blur. His most recent book, The Singularity is Near, argues that the rate of innovation will accelerate in the coming decades and will lead to a moment in the middle of the century when computer intelligence will match human intelligence.
Among Kurzweil’s awards are the Lemelson-MIT Prize in invention and innovation, induction into the National Inventor Hall of Fame in 2002, the 1999 National Medal of Technology, and the 1994 Dickson Prize from Carnegie Mellon University.