Raymond Kurzweil: Great Inventions

May 31, 2001

Since age 17, Ray Kurzweil has built companies, authored books and advised startups. UPSIDE magazine Editor in Chief Jerry Borrell recently caught up with this innovative thinker.

Originally published January 20, 2001 at Upside.com. Published on KurzweilAI.net May 31, 2001.

Raymond Kurzweil grew up in Queens, N.Y., the son of an artist and a musician who fled Hitler in 1938. By age 12 he had written a mainframe computer program for statistics, which led him toward a lifelong interest in pattern recognition. As a winner of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, with the invention of a computer and music-composition program, he made an early appearance at the White House to meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

From this early start as a wunderkind, Kurzweil has become a self-described inventor, specializing in the areas of pattern recognition he originated with his analysis of classical music for the Westinghouse project.

After founding several companies with his name–Kurzweil Music Systems, Kurzweil Reading Machine and others–he continues to run new companies, sits on the boards of other startups, and is the author of several books, including the best-selling “The Age of Spiritual Machines.”

UPSIDE: So there you are, a high school student, you’ve already had your 15 minutes of fame at the ripe old age of 17–then what?

Kurzweil: It was, in fact, exactly 15 minutes. Then I went to MIT. I actually had a correspondence with Marvin Minsky for a couple of years. I had a fascination with pattern recognition. And even though it really wasn’t apparent at that time, Minsky had a strong interest in things like neural nets and other methods of pattern recognition.

U: What was computer research like at MIT then?

K: MIT had one main computer for all its students and professors. It was an IBM 7094 with 32,000 words of memory. They were 36-bit words, so it was equivalent to 150,000 bytes, a quarter of a MIPS. You submitted your job on punch cards. If you got a comma wrong, you had to wait another day to get your job run again. And that actually instilled in me some habits I still have today.

U: What did you study at MIT?

K: I took all the computer courses. There were only nine computer courses at MIT in 1965. I took those the first year and a half, then I went into literature–creative writing–and I got a degree in creative writing and computer science. I remember my parents were upset at my interest in creative writing, because they had struggled as artists, and at that time it was already apparent that technology was a good field to be in. So when I transferred to literature and had an interest in writing poetry, they kind of freaked out.

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