National Inventors Hall of Fame | Kurzweil Inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame
May 16, 2002
National Inventors Hall of Fame — May 16, 2002
Father of the Kurzweil Reading Machine Helped the Blind While Reshaping Information Technology for the World
Imagine enabling the blind to “read” ordinary printed materials, along the way pioneering information technologies that profoundly impact how the world processes information for decades to come.
This is just the surface of the many amazing accomplishments of Raymond Kurzweil, inventor of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, who was announced today as an inductee into this year’s class of inventors to be honored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The announcement was made at a ceremony at Hewlett-Packard Company, the leading corporate sponsor of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The Kurzweil Reading Machine was the first computer to transform random text into computer-spoken words, enabling blind and visually impaired people to read any printed materials. When this first print-to-speech reading machine was invented in 1976, Kurzweil’s technology waswidely regarded as the most significant advancement for the blind since Braille’s introduction in 1829. It not only dramatically impacted the lives of blind people (85 percent of blind college students are estimated to have used one), it pioneered several computer technologies which have become separate industries that are still thriving today.
The world was introduced to the Reading Machine when Walter Cronkite used it to close the evening news with “And that’s the way it is, January 13, 1976.” For the first time, Cronkite did not speak the words himself. Instead he had the Reading Machine deliver them.
Stevie Wonder heard about the Kurzweil Reading Machine that week, and bought the first one. Kurzweil and Wonder developed a friendship that would later evolve into the development of music technology based on Stevie Wonder’s suggestions.
The Reading Machine is just one of many technologies resultingf rom Kurzweil’s expertise in pattern recognition, and his innate ability to envision the application of technologies far ahead of the mainstream. In 1963, when he was just 15 years old, he wrote his first mainframe computer program to help with his tedious summer job of processing statistical results. IBM distributed the program to researchers everywhere. In high school, this son of an orchestra conductor wondered why some music evoked emotion, and in 1965 Kurzweil developed a computer program that composed music to emulate the compositions of famous composers such as Mozart. That invention won him first prize at the International Science Fair, a national prize in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and an appearanceon the game show “I’ve Got a Secret” with Steve Allen. While a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wrote software to match high schoolers’ interests with appropriate colleges. The program’s purchase by Harcourt Brace & World funded his college education.
A few years after graduating from MIT in 1970 with majors in computer science and literature, he formed a company to continue his interest in developing pattern recognition technology, such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). He advanced the technology significantly by developing the first omni-font OCR in 1974. Prior to Kurzweil’s contribution,OCR software could only read certain fonts with precise spacing and in very high quality print. Kurzweil and his team developed software that understood the abstract qualities of letter shapes and could read any font. The technology, now called Xerox TextBridge, is still marketed and developed 29 years after its initial development.
Kurzweil developed OCR and other technologies before he had anapplication for them through the Reading Machine. He said, “I really had a solution and was looking for a problem. Then, I happenedto sit next to a blind gentleman on a plane. He told me that he traveled the world for his company, and that his blindness was a characteristic, not a handicap. There was only one area in which he was not able to match the abilities of sighted people: reading ordinary printed materials. Only a small percentage of books was translated to Braille, and there was a great lag between the time materials were published and translated.” Kurzweil’s omni-font OCR gave all visually impaired people a solution for reading.
In developing the Reading Machine, Kurzweil also made major advancements in scanning technology. He and his team developed the first Charge Couple Device (CCD) flatbed scanner — the now-ubiquitous scanners in our workplaces and homes. They also developed the first text-to-speech synthesis. His advancements were at least a decade ahead of any other similar introductions, and would eventually be used in applications such as in-car computers and phone response systems.
Other contributions include the Kurzweil 250 music synthesizer, developed in 1984 after Stevie Wonder asked the inventor if he could engineer a synthesizer that could realistically recreate the rich sounds of orchestral instruments. Now every composer can have a virtual orchestra at his or her fingertips. Also, Kurzweil invented Kurzweil Voice Report, the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition, a system used by hands-impaired individuals and anyone who is unable to type at high speed.
Kurzweil has founded nine companies since his first one in 1973. Today, FAT KAT (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies) uses pattern recognition to make stock market investment decisions. Kurzweil Medical Learning Company simulates doctor/patient encounters for medical education and reference KurzweilAI.net is the “home of the big thinkers” discussing the future of technology and its impact, hosted by Ramona, Kurzweil’s virtual reality alter-ego. At KurzweilCyberArt.com, original poetry can be patterned after the masters and AARON, a cybernetic artist, creates original artwork. Kurzweil Educational Systems continues to develop the next generation of print-to-speech technology to aid both the blind and the learning disabled such as the dyslexic, visually impaired and those learning to read.
Kurzweil’s next frontier is the human mind. The Kurzweil Reading Machine is considered one of the first machines to successfully incorporate Artificial Intelligence, an area that the inventor continue sto passionately explore. He explained, “It turns out, the foundation of human intelligence is not logical thinking, but pattern recognition. We learn by recognizing previous relevant experiences.” Among his writings on the topic of artificial intelligence are the acclaimed books, The Age of Intelligent Machines” and The Age of Spiritual Machines as well as numerous widely quoted articles.
Raymond Kurzweil has received many awards, in addition to ten honorary doctorates and accolades from three U.S. presidents. He said, “Being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame is an important award to me. Although I am an author and entrepreneur, I primarily consider myself to be an inventor. I feel like I am being recognized by my peers.”
Other noteworthy awards include: 2001 Lemelson-MIT Award, 1999 National Medal of Technology from President Clinton, 1998 Stevie Wonder Vision Award, 1995 Access Prize from the American Foundation for the Blind, 1994 Dickson Prize from Carnegie Mellon University,1991 Louis Braille Award from the Associated Services, 1990 Engineer of the Year Award from the readers of Design News Magazine, 1988 Inventor of the Year Award from MIT, Boston Museum of Science and Boston Patent Law Association, and 1986 Distinguished Inventor Award from Intellectual Property Owners.
The not-for-profit National Inventors Hall of Fame® is the premier organization in America dedicated to honoring and fostering creativity and invention. Each year a new class of inventors are inducted into the National Hall of Fame in recognition of their patented inventions that make human, social and economic progress possible. Founded in 1973 by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law Associations,the Hall’s permanent home is Akron, Ohio, and serves as both a museum and an educational programming resource. For more information or to nominate an inventor, go to www.invent.org.
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