From the Editor: We recently received notice that Ray Kurzweil, a true benefactor of blind people and a dear friend and colleague of the Federation, has just received a significant honor. The material we received not only describes the award he recently received from President Clinton but includes a brief biography that outlines in lay terms several of Ray Kurzweil's most important contributions. Here is some of the information we received:
The White House has announced that on March 14, 2000, Ray Kurzweil received the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House Ceremony. The citation on Mr. Kurzweil's National Medal of Technology reads:
For pioneering and innovative achievements in computer science that have overcome barriers for and enriched the lives of disabled persons and of all Americans, including developing the first print‑to‑speech reading machine for the blind, the first commercially marketed, large-vocabulary speech-recognition technology, and the ground‑breaking Kurzweil 250 computer music keyboard.
The National Medal of Technology is the nation's highest honor in technology. Enacted by Congress in 1980, the Medal has been awarded by the President of the United States each year since 1985. It is awarded to several individuals or groups each year. In most years a company has also been honored. No categories are specified in the award.
Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley writes: "The National Medal of Technology is the Nation's highest honor for technological achievement, presented annually by the President of the United States. The men and women awarded the National Medal of Technology are those whose extraordinary works in research, development, and design have made significant contributions to U.S. prosperity and competitiveness, our overall quality of life, and our understanding of the world around us."
When Ray Kurzweil was developing the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the first print‑to‑speech reading machine for the blind, he worked closely with a team of blind engineers and scientists assembled by the National Federation of the Blind, not just to test the Kurzweil Reading Machine and design its user interface, but on all facets of this complex undertaking. It was a simple but pioneering design philosophy-‑work closely with the intended users of one's inventions as key participants in the invention process. That philosophy combined with Kurzweil's own innovative genius has led to a dazzling array of landmark inventions.
The Reading Machine itself has been called the most significant advance for the blind since the invention of Braille in the nineteenth century. Introduced in 1976, it reads ordinary printed materials such as books, magazines, and memos to blind, visually impaired, and dyslexic people in a synthesized voice. Its invention required solving several important computer science problems and resulted in the creation of the first omni‑font optical character recognition (OCR) technology, the first CCD (Charge Coupled Device) flat‑bed scanner, and the first text‑to‑speech synthesizer. Unlike limited‑font OCR systems, Kurzweil's OCR recognized print regardless of type style. It would be ten years before anyone else was able to duplicate this capability.
Each of these inventions evolved into what is today a major commercial field or industry, and the technologies that Kurzweil created and their successors continue to be market leaders within those industries. Virtually all American information workers use, at least indirectly, CCD flat‑bed scanning and omni‑font OCR, technologies first created and pioneered by Kurzweil. These are key enabling technologies that have made possible text and multi‑media data bases, on‑line information services, image and text documents on the World Wide Web, and other manifestations of the information age.
When Kurzweil turned his attention to developing the first computer music keyboard that could accurately and convincingly recreate the sounds of the grand piano and other orchestral (i.e., acoustic) instruments, he applied the same lesson he had learned in developing the reading machine. All the engineers and scientists that worked on the new project were musicians, and many were quite accomplished. The Kurzweil 250, introduced in 1984, was able to fool concert pianists in an A‑B oblindo comparison as to whether they were hearing a grand piano or the Kurzweil invention. The technology Kurzweil created allowed musicians for the first time to play the sounds of any acoustic instrument, to play them polyphonically (i.e., multiple notes at a time), and to apply the full range of computer control techniques such as sequencing, layering, and sound modification to the rich sounds of acoustic instruments. As with the Reading Machine and the OCR technology, it would be several years before any other person or organization would duplicate this feat.
The type of computer‑based music synthesis that Kurzweil pioneered has evolved into what is today a multi‑billion dollar industry and is used to create virtually all commercial music‑recorded albums, movies, TV, etc. The Kurzweil brand of electronic musical instruments is a market leader, sold in forty-five countries.
Kurzweil was also the principal developer of the first commercially marketed, large-vocabulary speech-recognition technology. Kurzweil VOICE Report, introduced in 1987, could convert speech into print, the opposite of the reading machine. Today it is widely used by hands‑disabled persons to create written documents, use computers, and control their environment. A combination of Kurzweil's speech-recognition technology with a Kurzweil‑developed medical expert system and knowledge base is also widely used by physicians to create medical reports.
Overall, Kurzweil's inventions have involved major advances in computer science while at the same time yielding practical products that meet fundamental needs. It is rare for one individual to work successfully at both ends of this spectrum. He has also created multiple businesses to bring these inventions to market, all of which continue today as market leaders. His inventions have provided significant benefit to mankind by overcoming major barriers for disabled persons, enriching the world of music, and expanding the usefulness of computers for everyone.
In addition to his inventions, Kurzweil is a prolific author. His latest book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (Viking, 1999), has quickly achieved a high level of critical and commercial success. Kurzweil received his BS in computer science and literature from MIT.