The Braille Monitor                                                                                       October 2002

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Kenneth Jernigan's Prophetic Vision

by Ray Kurzweil

From the Editor: For more than a quarter century Dr. Raymond Kurzweil has been a faithful friend of the National Federation of the Blind. He has contributed significantly to our scholarship program for several years, and he generously lends his prestige to many of our programs and special events. On Saturday, September 21, 2002, the Federation had an opportunity to lend its presence and offer our congratulations to Ray as he was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. Over five hundred people filled the large atrium of the Hall of Fame for a gala dinner and ceremony broadcast later by public television. NPR did a story about the induction the day before, and many of the finest minds in the country were present for this ceremony.

Ray Kurzweil was honored for his invention of the first reading machine in 1976. The Hall of Fame produced a book listing each inductee since it opened in 1973. Here is the text of the entry for Dr. Kurzweil:

Ray Kurzweil and Barbara Pierce before the induction ceremony at the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Ray Kurzweil and Barbara Pierce before the induction ceremony at the Inventors Hall of Fame

Ray Kurzweil invented the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the first device to transform print into computer-spoken words, enabling blind and visually impaired people to read printed materials. When this print-to-speech reading machine was invented in 1976, the technology was regarded as the most significant advancement for the blind since Braille's introduction in 1829.

Kurzweil graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970, majoring in computer science and literature. Several years later he formed a company to explore pattern recognition technology such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). He advanced the technology for developing the first omnifont OCR in 1974, creating software that understood letter shapes in any font. In conjunction with this, Kurzweil and the team he led also developed the first Charge Couple Device (CCD) flatbed scanner, the ubiquitous scanners in workplaces and homes. Other contributions include the Kurzweil 250 music synthesizer, which recreates the rich sounds of orchestral instruments.

Since 1973 Kurzweil has founded nine companies. A pioneer in artificial intelligence, he is the author of The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines. Honored by many awards, Kurzweil received the National Medal of Technology in 1999.

The NFB was proud to have worked with Ray Kurzweil to make his reading machine such a success, and we were grateful that he paid tribute to our part in that process when he responded to his medal presentation. We certainly value our friendship with this extraordinary American.

After President Maurer's banquet address on Monday, July 8, 2002, Ray Kurzweil made the following remarks:

Twenty-seven years ago I had the honor of meeting Dr. Jernigan and other leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. Back then Jim Gashel headed the Washington office and displayed the same passion and strategic brilliance then that he would demonstrate in this crucial position for the next quarter century. Marc Maurer was then a young student but was already demonstrating his commitment and leadership capacities as the NFB's student leader.

I had the privilege of working intimately with the NFB's engineers and scientists, under the leadership of Michael Hingson, to create a print-to-speech reading machine. The lessons of that experience have animated my career since that time, the most important of which is the following. If you want to create a new technology, then the people to turn to, the people who have the motivation and the knowledge to do the job right, are the intended users themselves.

I've remained involved with reading-machine technology for the last twenty-seven years, most recently with Kurzweil Educational Systems, and have remained close to the NFB, both of which have been deeply rewarding experiences. The NFB succeeds for two reasons: the endless reservoir of dedication of its members, and the genius of its leadership.

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was a leader in the tradition of Moses and Martin Luther King. And like both of these men he would be unable to experience personally the promised land toward which he had so skillfully led his people. In his last year of life, Dr. Jernigan articulated a vision that he knew he would never get to see: the world's first world-class research and training institute for the blind. It was a prophetic vision, and in a moment I'll share with you why I believe that to be the case.

Unlike many other leaders Dr. Jernigan knew he was a mortal man and prepared for new leadership long before there was any reason to believe there was any impending reason to do so. He nurtured Marc Maurer's leadership skills and, as is evident at this convention, was as successful in this endeavor as in everything else he did. When Dr. Jernigan passed from the scene, the vision of the research and training institute was just that: a vision and a daunting challenge that many doubted would ever come to fruition. It is a fitting testament to Dr. Jernigan's lifetime of leadership, and a reflection of the dedication of its membership and the continuation of inspired leadership in the person of Dr. Maurer, that this institute now rises like a sphinx in the outskirts of Baltimore.

Let me share with you why I think Dr. Jernigan's vision came at a propitious time. Technology has always been important, but we are now standing on the precipice of an inflection point in human history. Technology is reaching what I call the knee of the curve, a point at which its inherently exponential growth is taking off at a nearly vertical slope. I've studied technology trends for several decades and developed mathematical models of its progression. The most important insight that I've gained from this study is that the pace of progress is itself accelerating. While people are quick to agree with this assessment, few observers have truly internalized the profound implications of this acceleration. It means that the past is not a reliable guide to the future. We're doubling what I call the paradigm shift rate every decade. So the twentieth century was not one hundred years of progress at today's rate of progress because we've been accelerating up to this point. The last one hundred years was akin to twenty years of progress at today's rate of progress. And we'll make another twenty years of progress at today's rate of progress, equal to all of the twentieth century, in the next fourteen years. And then we'll do it again in another seven years. Because of the power of exponential growth, the twenty-first century will be like twenty thousand years of progress at today's rate of progress, which is a thousand times more change than what we witnessed in the twentieth century.

The other insight I've had is that technology is a mixed blessing. It brings both promise and peril. If we could magically go back two hundred years and describe the dangers of today's world to the people back then (as just one example, enough nuclear weapons to destroy all mammalian life on Earth) they would think it crazy to take such risks. On the other hand, how many of us today would want to go back to the world of two hundred years ago? Before you raise your hands, consider this. If it wasn't for the progress of the past two centuries, most of us here tonight wouldn't be here tonight. Average life expectancy in the year 1800 was only thirty-seven years. And most people on Earth lived lives filled with poverty, hard labor, disease, and disaster, not to mention the ignorance and prejudice that were rampant with regard to the capabilities of the blind.

So we've come a long way through both promise and peril. And few of us would want to go back. As Dr. Maurer has said many times, we'll never go back, certainly not to the lack of opportunity that was the rule for blind people a half century ago.

We also see the promise and peril of technology in its impact on the blind. The digitization of information has brought many opportunities as blind people have led the world in rates of computer literacy. Reading machines; screen readers; voice-based news services such as NFB-NEWSLINEŽ; and Braille translators, printers, and note takers have all provided greater opportunity. But the downside of technology has also been evident. With the great profusion of electronic displays, access for the blind is often an afterthought if it is thought of at all. The moment that text-based screen readers were perfected, the graphical user interface was introduced. It then took at least a decade for Windows-based screen readers to become workable, at which time a new set of challenges emerged from a profusion of new Web-based protocols such as Flash and JAVA that are once again creating barriers.

This intertwined promise and peril is going to accelerate. At the end of this first decade of this new century, everyone will be online all the time with very high speed, wireless communication woven into their clothing. Will this represent a great enabler for blind students and workers? Or will it represent a new set of obstructions? To assure the former, we'll need new technology breakthroughs, public accessibility standards, and a panoply of programs for training and availability. This is why Dr. Jernigan's initiative was prophetic.

Scientists are beginning to perfect new ways of communicating directly with the human body and brain. There are already four major conferences devoted to a field called bioMEMS: biological micro-electronic mechanical systems that are beginning to place intelligent devices inside the human bloodstream and brain noninvasively. Within a couple of decades we will have established new high-bandwidth pathways of communication directly to and from our brains. Will these radical new technologies be a good thing for blind people? Well, I suspect that the National Federation of the Blind will have something to say about how these developments are deployed and about assuring that they bring promise rather than peril for the blind.

It looks like we will have the NFB's National Research and Training Institute for the Blind just in the nick of time. Despite his illness Dr. Jernigan realized he did not have a moment to lose in articulating his vision. And this is why I believe that Dr. Jernigan's foresight was a prophecy.

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