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February 12, 1948 |
Queens, New York, United States
|Occupation||Author, entrepreneur and futurist|
|Spouse||Sonya R. Kurzweil|
Raymond "Ray" Kurzweil (// KURZ-wyl; born February 12, 1948) is an American author, inventor and futurist. Aside from futurology, he is involved in fields such as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments. He is the author of several books on health, artificial intelligence (AI), transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism. Kurzweil is generally recognized as a public advocate for the futurist and transhumanist movements, due to his stances on life extension technologies, his efforts to forecast future advances in technology, and his interest in the concept of the technological singularity. At the same time, he has attracted significant criticism from scientists and thinkers.
Ray Kurzweil grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. He was born to secular Jewish parents who had escaped Austria just before the onset of World War II, and he was exposed via Unitarian Universalism to a diversity of religious faiths during his upbringing. His father was a musician and composer and his mother was a visual artist. His uncle, an engineer at Bell Labs, taught young Ray the basics of computer science. In his youth, he was an avid reader of science fiction literature. In 1963, at age fifteen, he wrote his first computer program. Later in high school he created a pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles. In 1965, he was invited to appear on the CBS television program I've Got a Secret, where he performed a piano piece that was composed by a computer he also had built. Later that year, he won first prize in the International Science Fair for the invention; he was also recognized by the Westinghouse Talent Search and was personally congratulated by President Lyndon B. Johnson during a White House ceremony.
In 1968, during his sophomore year at MIT, Kurzweil started a company that used a computer program to match high school students with colleges. The program, called the Select College Consulting Program, was designed by him and compared thousands of different criteria about each college with questionnaire answers submitted by each student applicant. When he was 20, he sold the company to Harcourt, Brace & World for $100,000 (roughly $500,000 in 2006 dollars) plus royalties. He obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and Literature in 1970 from MIT.
In 1974, Kurzweil started the company Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. and led development of the first omni-font optical character recognition system—a computer program capable of recognizing text written in any normal font. Before that time, scanners had only been able to read text written in a few fonts. He decided that the best application of this technology would be to create a reading machine, which would allow blind people to understand written text by having a computer read it to them aloud. However, this device required the invention of two enabling technologies—the CCD flatbed scanner and the text-to-speech synthesizer. Development of these technologies was completed at other institutions such as Bell Labs, and on January 13, 1976, the finished product was unveiled during a news conference headed by him and the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. Called the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the device covered an entire tabletop. It gained him mainstream recognition: on the day of the machine's unveiling, Walter Cronkite used the machine to give his signature soundoff, "And that's the way it is, January 13, 1976." While listening to The Today Show, musician Stevie Wonder heard a demonstration of the device and purchased the first production version of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, beginning a lifelong friendship between himself and Kurzweil.
Kurzweil's next major business venture began in 1978, when Kurzweil Computer Products began selling a commercial version of the optical character recognition computer program. LexisNexis was one of the first customers, and bought the program to upload paper legal and news documents onto its nascent online databases.
Two years later, Kurzweil sold his company to Lernout & Hauspie. Following the bankruptcy of the latter, the system became a subsidiary of Xerox formerly known as Scansoft and now as Nuance Communications, and he functioned as a consultant for the former until 1995.
Kurzweil's next business venture was in the realm of electronic music technology. After a 1982 meeting with Stevie Wonder, in which the latter lamented the divide in capabilities and qualities between electronic synthesizers and traditional musical instruments, Kurzweil was inspired to create a new generation of music synthesizers capable of accurately duplicating the sounds of real instruments. Kurzweil Music Systems was founded in the same year, and in 1984, the Kurzweil K250 was unveiled. The machine was capable of imitating a number of instruments, and in tests musicians were unable to discern the difference between the Kurzweil K250 on piano mode from a normal grand piano. The recording and mixing abilities of the machine, coupled with its abilities to imitate different instruments made it possible for a single user to compose and play an entire orchestral piece.
Kurzweil Music Systems was sold to Korean musical instrument manufacturer Young Chang in 1990. As with Xerox, Kurzweil remained as a consultant for several years. Hyundai acquired Young Chang in 2006 and in January 2007 has appointed Raymond Kurzweil as Chief Strategy Officer of Kurzweil Music Systems.
Concurrent with Kurzweil Music Systems, Kurzweil created the company Kurzweil Applied Intelligence (KAI) to develop computer speech recognition systems for commercial use. The first product, which debuted in 1987, was an early speech recognition program.
Kurzweil started Kurzweil Educational Systems in 1996 to develop new pattern-recognition-based computer technologies to help people with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia and ADD in school. Products include the Kurzweil 1000 text-to-speech converter software program, which enables a computer to read electronic and scanned text aloud to blind or visually impaired users, and the Kurzweil 3000 program, which is a multifaceted electronic learning system that helps with reading, writing, and study skills.
During the 1990s Kurzweil founded the Medical Learning Company. The company's products included an interactive computer education program for doctors and a computer-simulated patient. Around the same time, Kurzweil started KurzweilCyberArt.com—a website featuring computer programs to assist the creative art process. The site used to offer free downloads of a program called AARON—a visual art synthesizer developed by Harold Cohen—and of "Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poet", which automatically creates poetry. During this period he also started KurzweilAI.net, a website devoted towards showcasing news of scientific developments, publicizing the ideas of high-tech thinkers and critics alike, and promoting futurist-related discussion among the general population through the Mind-X forum.
In 1999, Kurzweil created a hedge fund called "FatKat" (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies), which began trading in 2006. He has stated that the ultimate aim is to improve the performance of FatKat's A.I. investment software program, enhancing its ability to recognize patterns in "currency fluctuations and stock-ownership trends." He predicted in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, that computers will one day prove superior to the best human financial minds at making profitable investment decisions. In 2001, Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace released an album, titled Spiritual Machines, based on Kurzweil's book. Kurzweil's voice was featured in the album, reading excerpts from his book.
In June 2005, Kurzweil introduced the "Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader" (K-NFB Reader)—a pocket-sized device consisting of a digital camera and computer unit. Like the Kurzweil Reading Machine of almost 30 years before, the K-NFB Reader is designed to aid blind people by reading written text aloud. The newer machine is portable and scans text through digital camera images, while the older machine is large and scans text through flatbed scanning.
Kurzweil made a movie called The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About the Future in 2010 based, in part, on his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near. Part fiction, part non-fiction, he interviews 20 big thinkers like Marvin Minsky, plus there is a B-line narrative story that illustrates some of the ideas, where a computer avatar (Ramona) saves the world from self-replicating microscopic robots. In addition to his movie, an independent, feature-length documentary was made about Kurzweil, his life, and his ideas called Transcendent Man. Filmmakers Barry Ptolemy and Felicia Ptolemy followed Kurzweil, documenting his global speaking tour. Premiered in 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Transcendent Man documents Kurzweil's quest to reveal mankind's ultimate destiny and explores many of the ideas found in his New York Times bestselling book, The Singularity Is Near, including his concept of exponential growth, radical life expansion, and how we will transcend our biology. The Ptolemys documented Kurzweil's stated goal of bringing back his late father using AI. The film also features critics who argue against Kurzweil's predictions.
In 2010, an independent documentary film called Plug & Pray premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival, in which Kurzweil and one of his major critics, the late Joseph Weizenbaum, argue about the benefits of eternal life.
Kurzweil frequently comments on the application of cell-size nanotechnology to the workings of the human brain and how this could be applied to building AI. While being interviewed for a February 2009 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Kurzweil expressed a desire to construct a genetic copy of his late father, Fredric Kurzweil, from DNA within his grave site. This feat would be achieved by exhumation and extraction of DNA, constructing a clone of Fredric and retrieving memories and recollections—from Ray's mind—of his father.
Kurzweil is married with two children. His wife, Sonya, is a child psychologist while his son works as a venture capitalist and his daughter as a choreographer.
Kurzweil's first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, was published in 1990. The nonfiction work discusses the history of computer AI and also makes forecasts regarding future developments. Other experts in the field of AI contribute heavily to the work in the form of essays. The Association of American Publishers' awarded it the status of Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990.
Next, Kurzweil published a book on nutrition in 1993 called The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life. The book's main idea is that high levels of fat intake are the cause of many health disorders common in the U.S., and thus that cutting fat consumption down to 10% of the total calories consumed would be optimal for most people.
In 1998, Kurzweil published The Age of Spiritual Machines, which focuses heavily on further elucidating his theories regarding the future of technology, which themselves stem from his analysis of long-term trends in biological and technological evolution. Much focus goes into examining the likely course of AI development, along with the future of computer architecture.
Kurzweil's next book published in 2004, returned to the subject of human health and nutrition. Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever was co-authored by Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, a medical doctor and specialist in alternative medicine. The Singularity Is Near was published in 2005. The book was made into a movie starring Pauley Perrette (NCIS). In February 2007, Ptolemaic Productions acquired the rights to The Singularity is Near, The Age of Spiritual Machines and Fantastic Voyage including the rights to Kurzweil's life and ideas for the film Transcendent Man. The feature length documentary was directed by Barry Ptolemy.
Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, a follow-up to Fantastic Voyage, was released on April 28, 2009 and Kurzweil's latest book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, is scheduled for release on October 2, 2012. 
Kurzweil has received many awards and honors, including:
Kurzweil's central argument is derived from the predictions of Moore's Law that the rate of innovation of computer technology is increasing not linearly but rather exponentially. According to Kurzweil's argument, since growth in so many fields of science and technology depends upon computing power, these improvements translate into exponentially more frequent advances in non-computer sciences like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and materials science. Kurzweil refers to this concept as the "Law of Accelerating Returns", and has asserted that this is supported by a number of metrics.
Kurzweil has forecast a number of specific technological advances with specific dates in his books, stating that before 2050 medical advances will allow people to radically extend their lifespans while preserving quality of life through the use of nanobots, that a computer will pass the Turing test by 2029, that the first strong artificial intelligence will be a computer simulation of a human brain generated by nanorobotic brain scanning, sentient artificial intelligences will exhibit moral thinking and respect humans, and that the line between humans and machines will blur as machines attain human-level intelligence and humans start incorporating more technology.
Kurzweil's application of his law to forecasting innovations have been disputed by other scientists and writers.
Kurzweil's standing as a futurist and Transhumanist has led to his involvement in several Singularity-themed organizations. In December 2004, Kurzweil joined the advisory board of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. In October 2005, Kurzweil joined the scientific advisory board of the Lifeboat Foundation. On May 13, 2006, Kurzweil was the first speaker at the Stanford University Singularity Summit.
In February 2009, Kurzweil, in collaboration with Google and the NASA Ames Research Center, announced the creation of the Singularity University training center for corporate executives and government officials. The University's self-described mission is to "assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges". Using Vernor Vinge's Singularity concept as a foundation, the University offered its first nine-week graduate program to forty students in June, 2009.
Kurzweil is on the Army Science Advisory Board, has testified before Congress on the subject of nanotechnology, and has advocated that nanotechnology could solve significant global problems such as poverty, disease, and climate change, viz. "Nanotech Could Give Global Warming a Big Chill ". In media appearances, Kurzweil has stressed the extreme potential dangers of nanotechnology, but argues that in practice, progress cannot be stopped, and any attempt to do so will retard the progress of defensive and beneficial technologies more than the malevolent ones, increasing the danger. He suggests that the proper place of regulation is to make sure progress proceeds safely and quickly.
In his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines Kurzweil proposed "The Law of Accelerating Returns", according to which the rate of change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems (including the growth of technologies) tends to increase exponentially. He gave further focus to this issue in a 2001 essay entitled "The Law of Accelerating Returns", which proposed an extension of Moore's law to a wide variety of technologies, and used this to argue in favor of Vernor Vinge's concept of a technological singularity.
Kurzweil's first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, presented his ideas about the future. It was written from 1986 to 1989 and published in 1990. Building on Ithiel de Sola Pool's "Technologies of Freedom" (1983), Kurzweil claims to have forecast the demise of the Soviet Union due to new technologies such as cellular phones and fax machines disempowering authoritarian governments by removing state control over the flow of information. In the book Kurzweil also extrapolated preexisting trends in the improvement of computer chess software performance to predict correctly that computers would beat the best human players by 1998, and most likely in that year. In fact, the event occurred in May 1997 when chess World Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM's Deep Blue computer in a well-publicized chess tournament. Perhaps most significantly, Kurzweil foresaw the explosive growth in worldwide Internet use that began in the 1990s. At the time of the publication of The Age of Intelligent Machines, there were only 2.6 million Internet users in the world, and the medium was unreliable, difficult to use, and deficient in content. He also stated that the Internet would explode not only in the number of users but in content as well, eventually granting users access "to international networks of libraries, data bases, and information services". Additionally, Kurzweil claims to have correctly foreseen that the preferred mode of Internet access would inevitably be through wireless systems, and he was also correct to estimate that the latter would become practical for widespread use in the early 21st century.
Kurzweil also claims to have accurately forecast that, by the end of the 1990s, many documents would exist solely in computers and on the Internet, and that they would commonly be embedded with sounds, animations, and videos that would inhibit their transfer to paper format. Moreover, he claims to have foreseen that cellular phones would grow in popularity while shrinking in size for the foreseeable future.
In 1999, Kurzweil published a second book titled The Age of Spiritual Machines, which goes into more depth explaining his futurist ideas. The third and final section of the book is devoted to elucidating the specific course of technological advancements Kurzweil predicts the world will experience over the next century.
While this book focuses on the future of technology and the human race as did The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil makes very few concrete, short-term predictions in The Singularity Is Near, though longer-term visions are present in abundance. He recently discussed the singularity with Vice Magazine.
Although Kurzweil admits that he cared little for his health until age 35, when he was diagnosed with a glucose intolerance, an early form of type II diabetes (a major risk factor for heart disease). Kurzweil then found a doctor that shares his non-conventional beliefs to develop an extreme regimen involving hundreds of pills, chemical intravenous treatments, red wine and various other methods to attempt to live longer. Kurzweil ingests "250 supplements, eight to 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea" every day and drinks several glasses of red wine a week in an effort to "reprogram" his biochemistry. Lately, he has cut down the number of supplement pills to 150.
Kurzweil joined the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics company. In the event of his death, Kurzweil's body will be chemically preserved, frozen in liquid nitrogen, and stored at an Alcor facility in the hope that future medical technology will be able to revive him.
He has authored three books on the subjects of nutrition, health and immortality: The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and TRANSCEND: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. In all, he recommends that other people emulate his health practices to the best of their abilities. Kurzweil and his current "anti-aging" doctor, Terry Grossman, MD., now have two websites promoting their first and second book.
Kurzweil's ideas have received some criticism within the scientific community and in the media.
Although the idea of a technological singularity is a popular concept in science fiction, some authors such as Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling have voiced scepticism about its real-world plausibility. Sterling expressed his views on the singularity scenario in a talk at the Long Now Foundation entitled The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole. Other prominent AI thinkers and computer scientists such as Daniel Dennett, Rodney Brooks, and David Gelernter have also criticized Kurzweil’s projections.
Daniel Lyons, writing in Newsweek, criticized Kurzweil for some of his predictions which turned out to be wrong; such as the economy continuing to boom from the 1998 dot-com through 2009, a US company having a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion, a supercomputer achieving 20 petaflops, speech recognition being in widespread use and cars that would drive themselves using sensors installed in highways; all by 2009. To the charge that a 20 petaflop supercomputer was not produced in the time he predicted, Kurzweil responded that he considers Google a giant supercomputer, and that it is indeed capable of 20 petaflops. In 2009, IBM announced the commencement of its development of the IBM Sequoia for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administrations, which is capable of 20+ petaflops and is expected to be delivered in 2011,[non-primary source needed] two years after Kurzeil's prediction.
Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, agrees with Kurzweil's timeline of future progress, but thinks that technologies such as AI, nanotechnology and advanced biotechnology will create a dystopian world. Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation, has called the notion of a technological singularity "intelligent design for the IQ 140 people...This proposition that we're heading to this point at which everything is going to be just unimaginably different—it's fundamentally, in my view, driven by a religious impulse. And all of the frantic arm-waving can't obscure that fact for me."
Some critics have argued more strongly against Kurzweil and his ideas. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter has said of Kurzweil's and Hans Moravec's books: "It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can't possibly figure out what's good or bad. It's an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it's very hard to disentangle the two, because these are smart people; they're not stupid." Biologist P. Z. Myers has criticized Kurzweil's predictions as being based on "New Age spiritualism" rather than science and says that Kurzweil does not understand basic biology. VR pioneer Jaron Lanier has even described Kurzweil’s ideas as “cybernetic totalism” and has outlined his views on the culture surrounding Kurzweil’s predictions in an essay for Edge.org entitled One Half of a Manifesto.
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