Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Reading Machine for the Blind
Raymond Kurzweil (1948- ) is one of the world's true pioneers in the field of
human-computer interfacing. Born in Queens, New York in 1948, Kurzweil grew
up in an academic family. His grandmother, for example, was one of the first
women in Europe to earn a PhD in chemistry. His parents were artists — his father
a musician and conductor and his mother a visual artist — who encouraged young
Kurzweil's creativity. At the age of five he began building his own model boats,
cars, and rocket ships. He built a simple computing device when he was 12 and
also learned how to program with the help of his uncle, an engineer at Bell
When Kurzweil was 15, he began his first project involving
pattern recognitionteaching machines how to see and understand patterns
in information. In high school, Kurzweil began corresponding with Marvin
Minsky, an artificial intelligence guru at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. Kurzweil chose to attend MIT partially because
of his relationship with Minsky. There he double-majored in computer science
and creative writing.
While he was taking classes, Kurzweil founded a company where
he used a computer to match high school students with colleges. He later sold
his company to Harcourt for $100,000 plus
royalties. In 1970, he completed his BS at MIT and just a few years later he
founded Kurzweil Computer Products,
a software and hardware company. There Kurzweil and his team invented what would
be one of the hallmarks of his entire careerthe Kurzweil Reading Machine,
which included the first CCD ("charge coupled device") flatbed scanner and first
omni-font OCR ("optical character recognition") software. The machine used only
64K of RAM and was able to scan lines of text one at a time. The machine "recognized"
each character as it passed regardless of typestyle; corrected the order of
the characters in its memory; determined the pronunciation of the resultant
words according to pre-programmed phonological rules; and articulated those
words through a speech synthesizer, also created by the company.
The Kurzweil Reading Machine was introduced in 1976: it has
been called the first commercial product to use artificial intelligence technology
successfully. The machine also provided a foundation for all subsequent text-speech
technology, including the automatic speech recognition systems developed by
Kurzweil and his colleagues at Kurzweil
Music Systems with Wonder as musical advisor. Kurzweil and his team set
out to invent a method of capturing and recreating the true sounds and musical
response of acoustic musical instruments such as the grand piano, violin, guitar
and drums. The team created the K250 keyboard synthesizer in 1983, the first
electronic instrument to reproduce successfully the sounds of acoustic instruments.
Kurzweil sold Kurzweil Music Systems to Young Chang, a large Korean musical
instrument company, in 1990.
Kurzweil has won a number of awards for his work, including
the 2001 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT
Prize, as well as the 1999 National
Medal of Technology from President Clinton and Design
News' Engineer of the Year award in 1990. He has been awarded 11 honorary
doctorates and has received awards from 3 U.S. Presidents. He also wrote the
award-winning book, "The Age of Intelligent Machines" in 1990, which was accompanied
by an award-winning documentary film, and "The Age of Spiritual Machines" in
1999, which achieved #1 status in the category of science on Amazon.
Today, in 2001, Kurzweil serves as founder and president of
Kurzweil Technologies in Wellesley Hills, Mass. There, he is working on his
Accelerating Intelligence Network,
a Web-based subsidiary of Kurzweil Technologies that showcases ideas of leading
technologists. Among other creations, Kurzweil developed "Ramona", a photo-realistic,
interactive lifelike avatar (virtual personality) that guides users through
the KurzweilAI.net site.
His company's work also includes a joint venture with the
American Board of Family Practice called the Medical
Learning Company (MLC). MLC is the developer of FamilyPractice.com,
a comprehensive online resource for family practice physicians which has also
developed a virtual patient for use in medical training. Kurzweil Technologies'
Kurzweil CyberArt Technologies
division develops and markets artificially intelligent software with a creative
bent, including Ray Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poet which helps users write poetry
and song lyrics, and AARON, a "cybernetic" artist. Finally, Kurzweil's FatKat,
Inc. is currently developing pattern recognition-based technology to make
stock market investment decisions.