$500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize awarded to futurist who makes a career of helping others

May 25, 2001

New York, NY, April 24, 2001–The Lemelson-MIT Program announced today that its annual $500,000 prize–the world’s largest single award for invention and innovation–is being presented to futurist Raymond Kurzweil, a pioneer of pattern recognition technologies who has made a career of helping others, while showing a flair for integrating technology and the arts. Over the past 35 years, Kurzweil has produced a lengthy list of achievements and innovations that have enriched society, including: advancing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies; founding, developing and selling four successful companies; and writing two best-selling books that support his predictions for the 21st century. Kurzweil is being recognized by the Lemelson-MIT Program for the breadth and scope of his inventive work, and for his commitment to enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities through technology.

Kurzweil is credited with many invention “firsts” that span such diverse fields as pattern recognition, speech technology, music and the visual arts. These include the first omni-font optical character recognition (OCR) computer program; the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind; the first text-to-speech synthesizer; the first electronic musical instrument capable of reproducing the sounds of orchestral instruments; and the first commercially-marketed large vocabulary speech recognition system. Kurzweil’s latest innovation represents an advance in virtual reality technology, a virtual performing and recording artist, “Ramona.”

Kurzweil’s landmark invention is the Kurzweil Reading Machine, introduced in 1976, which converts print to speech. To date, the Kurzweil Reading Machine has made it possible for many thousands of blind people to read the text of ordinary books, magazines and other printed documents. The first owner of a Kurzweil Reading Machine was legendary musician Stevie Wonder, who contacted Kurzweil after hearing about the device.

“The Kurzweil Reading Machine was a breakthrough that changed my life,” says Wonder, who helped nominate Kurzweil for the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. “With the Kurzweil Reading Machine, I could read anything I wanted with complete privacy: music lyrics, letters from my children, the latest best sellers and magazines, memos from my business associates. It gave blind people the one thing that everyone treasures, which is independence.”

Consequently, it was Kurzweil’s friendship with Wonder which led to another major innovation: the Kurzweil 250 Synthesizer (K250). On a tour through Wonder’s studio in 1982, Kurzweil learned of Wonder’s frustrations with the current technical limitations that prevented the bridging of electronic music composition with the sounds of acoustic instruments. Introduced commercially in 1984, the K250 was the first electronic musical instrument to emulate successfully the complex sound response of a grand piano and virtually all other orchestral instruments.

Currently, Kurzweil is focusing on KurzweilAI.net (Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence Network), a Web-based subsidiary of Kurzweil Technologies, Inc. (KTI) that showcases ideas of leading technologists and “big thinkers.” The main concentration of KurzweilAI.net is on the exponential growth of intelligence, both biological and artificial. “Ramona,” Kurzweil’s alter ego and a lifelike, photo-realistic, interactive avatar (virtual personality) with conversational abilities, simultaneously guides users through KurzweilAI.net and showcases the latest advancements in intelligent machines.

Other KTI companies include:

  • Medical Learning Company (MLC), developer of FamilyPractice.com, a comprehensive online resource for family practice physicians which has also developed a virtual patient for use in medical training. MLC is a joint venture between KTI and the American Board of Family Practice, the second largest medical specialty board in the U.S.
  • Kurzweil CyberArt Technologies (KCAT), which develops and markets artificially intelligent software to aid the creative process, including Ray Kurzweil’s Cybernetic Poet that helps users write poetry and song lyrics, and the forthcoming AARON (developed by computer scientist and artist, Harold Cohen), which “paints” original art on computer screens. KCAT is launching AARON today and free trial copies of the software are available at KurzweilCyberArt.com.
  • FatKat, Inc. (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies), which is currently developing pattern recognition-based technology to make stock market investment decisions. More information at Fatkat.com.

Previous recipients of the annual $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize include Thomas Fogarty, surgical pioneer and inventor of the embolectomy balloon catheter; Carver Mead, physicist who revolutionized the field of microelectronics; Robert Langer, inventor of the first FDA-approved brain cancer treatment; and Douglas Englebart, computing visionary and inventor of the computer mouse.

Kurzweil will be formally presented with the Lemelson-MIT Prize on Wednesday, April 25, at a special ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. This year, the ceremony will be held in conjunction with “Nobel Week,” a series of programs honoring the centennial of the Nobel Prizes, hosted by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Kurzweil gratefully acknowledges the role that his creative parents as well as his teachers and peers have played in his success as an inventor over the years. “Encouragement is necessary for young inventors to succeed. It is important for kids to realize that they have the authority to explore their own ideas and that it is okay to fail,” he says.


Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards including the world’s largest for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno. For more information about the Lemelson-MIT Program, please visit its Web site.

See the video of the award presentation, including a retrospective of Raymond Kurzweil’s career as an inventor and his acceptance speech (Total time: 25:18).

Click here to watch video