Time | Can we talk?

April 28, 1986

Source: Time — April 28, 1986 | Gordon W. Henry, Thomas McCarroll

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Raymond Kurzweil has always been way ahead of his peers. When he was twelve years old and his junior high classmates were struggling with book reports, Kurzweil developed a computer software package that was distributed by IBM. At age 17 he won a Westinghouse Science Talent Search award for a computer program that could write music in the style of Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven.

Today Kurzweil’s peers are corporate giants like IBM and AT&T, and the competition is tougher. Yet the boy wonder, now 38, is still out in front. In 1982 his Waltham, Mass.-based company, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, developed the first computer capable of recognizing a substantial number of spoken words and transcribing them into printed text. Though its 1,000-word vocabulary was a dazzling breakthrough in the infant field of artificial intelligence, the machine had few practical applications because it was very slow, taking 2 1/2 minutes to print a single word. But Kurzweil is preparing to unveil a vastly improved computer with ears this October. Called the VoiceWriter, it will recognize up to 10,000 words and print them as fast as they are spoken.

Virtually every major computer firm is racing behind Kurzweil to develop similar machines because their potential uses are almost unlimited. Executives could write notes merely by speaking into the computers, and eventually robots equipped with the devices could respond to spoken commands, like Artoo-Detoo of Star Wars fame. Though the technology is expensive (Kurzweil’s VoiceWriter will probably sell for $24,000), industry experts expect the market for speech-recognition machines to burgeon, from less than $100 million this year to $2 billion by 1990. Kurzweil’s closest competitor appears to be IBM, which two weeks ago introduced a prototype of a computer capable of recognizing 5,000 words. But Big Blue’s entry is not expected to be on the market for at least a year or two.

No one doubts that the VoiceWriter will be a technical marvel, considering Kurzweil’s past innovations. In 1974, four years out of M.I.T., he borrowed $150,000, set up his own company and developed the Kurzweil Reading Machine. Able to scan words on a printed page and then read them aloud in an artificial voice, the device has been hailed as the most significant aid for the blind since the invention of Braille. In 1983 he introduced the Kurzweil 250, a computer-driven musical synthesizer that can mimic the sounds of instruments and voices. Even more sophisticated than Robert Moog’s famous synthesizer, which was developed in the 1960s, the 250 can sound like a symphony orchestra one minute and a heavy-metal band the next. It has become a favorite of pop stars, including Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Prince.

It was no coincidence that Kurzweil applied his computer skills to making music. His father was a music professor who fled from Nazi Germany, came to the U.S. and married Kurzweil’s mother, also a German refugee. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in New York City, Kurzweil learned to play the keyboards of both pianos and computers and dreamed of becoming another Thomas Edison.

But while Edison’s inventions formed the foundation of a major corporation, General Electric, Kurzweil’s current ventures, which had sales of $10 million last year, are not yet profitable. Demand for his products has been limited because their prices are so high. Although the Kurzweil Reading Machine is available at many large libraries and institutions, few blind people can afford the $21,000 price tag. Similarly, the $10,000 to $17,000 Kurzweil 250 synthesizer is beyond the means of typical musicians.

Nonetheless, Kurzweil’s technologies are so promising that he has no trouble getting the capital to stay in business. Last year he raised $9 million with his first public stock offering. In addition, Xerox and Wang Laboratories have invested $6.5 million in his company.

Kurzweil hopes that the VoiceWriter will be his first commercial smash hit. But he admits that he will have to trim prices and become a savvier marketee. To help him, he has recruited two top managers from the rival firms Digital Equipment and Prime Computer. His biggest challenge, of course, will be to stay ahead of the Goliaths of the com puter industry. “We’re in a race,” says Kurzweil. “We’re now a company to beat.” Tell that to the computer and see what happens.

Copyright (c) 1986 by Time Inc. Reprinted by Permission. Reproduction of multiple copies of the article is strictly prohibited without permission of Time.