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Reading Machine for the Blind

Kurzweil 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 Labs.

When Kurzweil was 15, he began his first project involving pattern recognition—teaching 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 career—the 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.

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