FINALIST YEAR: 1965
HIS PROJECT: Programming a computer to compose music like classical composers did
WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: By age five, Raymond Kurzweil knew he wanted to be an inventor. Building things in his Queens, N.Y., home out of spare parts and Erector sets gave him what he describes as a "magical, transcendent feeling" that soon had him hooked.
He discovered computers around age 12. He spent hours tinkering with them, hanging around the electronics surplus stores on Manhattan's Canal Street to nab the components. His father was a musician and so, as a high school student, Kurzweil came up with the idea of programming a computer to recognize patterns in music written by composers such as Mozart and Chopin. He would then program the computer to compose music in the same style.
Because this was long before the days of everyday laptops, he actually built a computer in order to program it. The new musical works "didn’t have the genius of those composers," he says, but could be mistaken for, perhaps, a student of Chopin's. Kurzweil entered the project in the 1965 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist.
THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: Becoming a Westinghouse finalist cemented Kurzweil's interest in pattern recognition. "The secret to human intelligence is our ability to recognize patterns," he says. "It's the only thing human beings can do that machines can't do as well—yet."
Kurzweil has spent the past 40 years trying to change that. His next major project after Westinghouse, started during his freshman year at M.I.T., was a software program used to help students choose the right college. It was based on patterns in answers given by other students and characteristics of the colleges. (He ran the analysis on himself and determined that, yes, he should be at M.I.T.) He founded a company to market the questionnaire and eventually sold it to publisher Harcourt, Brace & World.
After college, he began another project in optical character recognition, teaching a machine to read any kind of text. At the time, such devices could only read a few fonts. He wasn't quite sure what the market would be until he happened to sit next to a blind man on a plane trip. The man explained that his "primary problem was access to ordinary print," Kurzweil says. Few documents came over the transom in braille. So he unveiled the Kurzweil Reading Machine in 1976. It was innovative but—given computing power limits at the time—could cover a whole desktop, which obviously limited its use.
Over time, Kurzweil's work in technology has led to his interest in futurism—which has been controversial. For instance, in 2006 he predicted that nanotechnology would in 15 to 30 years allow medicine to repair the human body to the point that people might be able to live forever. (To be sure he sticks around that long, Kurzweil takes a cocktail of his own nutritional supplements, sold by his and Frontier Medical Institute founder Terry Grossman's nutritional supplement business, Ray & Terry's Longevity Products.)
In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, he wrote that such eternal life was in our reach because "Being able to decode the human genome allows us to develop detailed models of how major diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, progress, and gives us the tools to reprogram those processes away from disease." For example, he wrote that scientists could "can turn on and off enzymes, the workhorses of biology. Pfizer Inc.'s cholesterol-lowering drug torcetrapib, for example, turns off one specific enzyme that allows atherosclerosis, the cause of almost all heart attacks, to progress." (Kurzweil wrote on similar subjects in Scientific American in 2006.)
These sweeping statements were a little much for "In the Pipeline" blogger Derek Lowe, a 20-year drug industry veteran. "Kurzweil really seemed to be living in 1997" when he wrote that, Lowe says. "There's a lot more to figuring out how diseases progress than knowing the human genome." For instance, "there are a huge number of diseases with no genetic correlation at all, or some like schizophrenia with a list of genes as long as your leg that are sort of associated with schizophrenia sometimes in some populations."
Kurzweil's optimism was also a bit much for the data: Torcetrapib recently failed in one of the most expensive debacles in pharmaceutical history. "Two to three hundred years from now people may look at this guy and think he was a prophet," Lowe says. "But there's going to be a tremendous amount of money, blood and sweat spent in that intervening time for these prophecies to come true. I don't necessarily disagree with him. I think his timeline is off."
WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: That's not to say technological change can't be swift. For instance, Kurzweil's new reading machine—co-developed with the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) as the KNFB Reader Mobile—fits into a cell phone. Blind or dyslexic users simply take a picture of the text in question and the phone reads it to them. The software sells for around $1500). "It reads magazines on airplanes, restaurant menus, coffee pouches in hotel rooms, currency in any location, the signs on hotel walls, and sometimes the bottles or cans in the cupboard or the boxes in the freezer," says Marc Maurer, NFB's president. "It can identify the bills, read the mail, disclose the contents of books, and sometimes read the visual displays on automatic teller machines or other devices. Furthermore, it will do this at any time of day or night, and is polite about it." The technology behind the machine helped Kurzweil win the $500,000 Lemelson–M.I.T. Prize in 2001.
In addition to inventing, predicting and running his supplement company, these days Kurzweil also runs a hedge fund called FatKat and is writing a book on how a machine can imitate the brain. The subject of a forthcoming documentary called Transcendent Man, Kurzweil says he still gets the same magical sensation he felt as a five-year-old when he sees people using his products. "You can change people's lives with technology," he marvels. "That's the goal of being an inventor."