September 2004 Issue  Volume 5  Number 5


The Man and the Machine: An Interview with Ray Kurzweil

Over the years, there have been numerous pioneers and innovators in the field of assistive technology. Undoubtedly, one of the best known and most admired is Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil has won many honors, including the 1999 National Medal of Technology, America's highest honor in technology. AccessWorld had the opportunity to interview Kurzweil in March 2004, just after he accepted AFB's highest honor, the Migel Medal at the Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute in Washington, DC.

Photo of Ray Kurzweil.

Caption: Ray Kurzweil. (Credit: Michael Lutch)

In the Beginning

Kurzweil developed the first Kurzweil reading machine from his interest in pattern recognition. In the early 1970s, optical character recognition (OCR) machines could recognize only a single style of type. Kurzweil was studying pattern recognition, which, he says, the human brain does well. For example, chess masters can recognize patterns on a chessboard at a glance, while chess computers have to analyze millions of irrelevant moves to find the best move. Similarly, to the human brain, what makes a capital A is its shape, whereas an OCR program guesses at each letter based on stored information and tries to make words from the images. Once a more sophisticated character recognition program was developed, Kurzweil said, "this solution needed a problem." The problem was suggested by a blind man who sat next to Kurzweil on an airplane trip and explained that he needed access to many types of printed materials. Two other problems needed to be solved: Both a flatbed scanner and a full text-to-speech program had to be developed. Kurzweil solved these problems by developing both products.

Blind scientists from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) tested the resulting product and made suggestions for improvement from a user's perspective. These suggestions included not placing braille labels on the user controls, since users would quickly learn the keys, and adding a Nominator key that would announce the functions of other keys.

The prototype of this first reading machine was completed in late 1975, and the new machine was announced on January 13, 1976. It was featured on all three national television networks' nightly newscasts, and it read Walter Cronkite's sign-off at the end of the CBS broadcast. The original Kurzweil Reading Machine had a minuscule 64,000 bytes of memory and cost $30,000 to $50,000. Units were placed in schools and libraries.

Just Enough for the Synergy

Stevie Wonder heard about the new reading machine that night on a national news broadcast, which Kurzweil says started a long relationship. In 1982, Wonder gave Kurzweil a tour of his new studio and lamented the state of the art in music production. Wonder's frustrations got Kurzweil pondering the differences between current synthesizers and traditional musical instruments. On the one hand, traditional instruments sounded good, but no one was a virtuoso on more than one or two of them, and a person could not play more than one instrument at a time. On the other hand, electronic instruments "sounded thin," but you had control of them. The synergy between the two men led to the founding of Kurzweil Music Systems and Kurzweil's development of synthesizers that could reproduce the sound of grand pianos and other instruments. Before he did so, Kurzweil said, "you had to hire musicians to learn and play your music. But, "now a college student can create and edit music in her dorm room."

Photo of Stevie Wonder sitting at the keyboard of a large synthesizer with many buttons and switches, while a young Ray Kurzweil looks over his shoulder.

Caption: Stevie Wonder and Ray Kurzweil with the Kurzweil 250 Music Synthesizer in 1986.

When asked how to bring down the cost of assistive technology, Kurzweil advised: "Use mainstream products and functions whenever possible." He said that it was ironic that some specialized technology has ultimately gone mainstream. As examples, Kurzweil cited the telephone, "which Alexander Graham Bell originally conceived as an aid for people who were deaf," and, of course, Talking Books, which found mainstream favor first as 33 1/3 RPM long-playing recordings of music and the spoken word, and, much later, as audio books.

Kurzweil is now working with NFB to develop a handheld scanning device that will use a digital camera and a portable computer and will perform two-dimensional scanning. Previous handheld scanners have failed because users who were blind could not move them straight across a printed page. Kurzweil believes that digital photography will solve this problem. "This device will be able to recognize objects at odd angles and under unpredictable lighting," not just text that is lined up on a scanner bed. A user will simply snap a picture, and the machine will recognize and read the writing on a cereal box, for example.

"You encounter a lot of reading material throughout the day, [but] reading machines are not portable now," Kurzweil said. He hopes to start testing the handheld scanner in 2005 and have a working model available in 2006.

The Future and Beyond

When asked about future developments in assistive technology, Kurzweil stated that a new mobility device will have some intelligence. It should be able to "look around the vicinity" and identify people and objects. By the end of this decade, something could be mounted on eyeglasses or pinned on your clothing. "It, combined with GPS [global positioning satellite] technology, would help direct a person."

Thinking further into the future, Kurzweil explained that electronics will be tiny, high speed, and wireless. "In the 2020s, information will come directly into our brains by nanobots," microscopic devices that will travel through our bloodstreams.

Kurzweil said that the goal of work in the disabilities field is to prevent blindness from becoming a handicap. Technological and nontechnological solutions are both key. Through information, devices—from fiberglass canes to screen readers—and appropriate training, people who are blind can succeed. "Ancient prejudices and a lack of understanding persist in society. People who are blind have to avoid internalizing these prejudices and realize that they can do almost anything," he noted.

Many of us have benefited from concepts and products that Kurzweil dreamed of and developed—from the original Kurzweil reading machine to the current Kurzweil 1000 OCR software that bears his name to the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech-recognition software. His views of technology and the future are exciting and uplifting. We do not know what Kurzweil's next revolutionary idea will be, but we can be sure he will think of something.

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Still Scanning after All These Years: A Profile of Kurzweil Educational Systems by Deborah Kendrick

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