Braille Monitor                         August/September 2020

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Ray Kurzweil Remarks

ANIL LEWIS: It's my honor, as we've made it a tradition, to introduce our next speaker, Ray Kurzweil. And Ray Kurzweil is one of the leading inventors and thinkers and futurists with a track record of over thirty years of accurate predictions. I could continue to read the description that they give, but again, I'm the emcee, so I get to take a point of personal privilege. I served as the scholarship chair back in 2008, 2009, and 2010. I actually had the opportunity to meet Dr. Kurzweil, and it's one of those moments in your life you always remember. And in this stage I am now, I will be sure to reflect on the great appreciation for the work of all the people that have come before me. I would be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to do this. When I lost my sight in 1989, I was working at the Decatur Savings and Loan and going to school at the time. It happened so quickly, it was RP, that over the weekend I could no longer read the computer screen. So I was unemployed. But I remember when I was signing the final papers in my HR office at the federal savings and loan, I remember I was leaving, and one of the ladies who worked in HR, Beverly, took me across the hall and introduced me to one of the McCurdys, who owned the bank. The gentleman had lost his sight. And he showed me one of the first Kurzweil reading machines. I sat there and watched that device turn that print into speech. And I had hope. Dr. Kurzweil, I thank you for that. So whatever comments he'd like to offer, I yield the podium to Dr. Ray Kurzweil.

Ray KurzweilRAY KURZWEIL: Thanks. That's a wonderful introduction. President Riccobono's beautiful and powerful speech using a set of words that he defined, helps us to define blindness. In recent years, I've been asked to speak after the President has shared his vision. This happened with Dr. Maurer and with President Riccobono. I appreciate this opportunity. But it's also a burden. We're greatly moved by the President's vision of what we have accomplished and the goals ahead. It's very hard to add to what President Riccobono has said, to celebrate progress, to feel what he called the love, hope, and determination that comes from what we share in this movement. Mark Riccobono began talking about the power of words. His words bring us together tonight. I've spent decades studying words myself, actually fifty years, and I'm doing that now at Google, and it was our reading machine that we developed together, that speaks written words, that brought us together almost half a century ago. He spoke about a movement that has become known for its generosity, its warmth, and its ability to change lives through personal connections. So I thought about that.

I first met this movement forty-five years ago, in 1975. At that time I had a crude working model of a reading machine. But it did not have an effective means of the user controlling how it would work. We also needed funds to finish its development. So I went around and met with all of the organizations that had an involvement with blindness that President Riccobono has talked about. Of course without the perspective that I now have. Well, everyone was very nice, but they had no idea of how a user could control a machine. They also had no ability for us to fund the next part of our work. That is, until I met with the head of government relations of the National Federation of the Blind, Jim Gashel. After I described how the machine worked, he was impressed, but he said, let me introduce you to the head of our organization, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. So I met with Dr. Jernigan and from the very beginning, it was very clear to me that here was a seminal leader who led its organization and the public for equal rights in the same way that Martin Luther King had done, had fought for people based on their ability to create and to overcome the prejudices against blind people that literally went back millennia.

Subsequent to that meeting, I met all these amazingly capable people, all of whom came from Iowa. Apparently they had all been trained to think for themselves and apply creative problem-solving abilities by Dr. Jernigan when he headed up the Iowa Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Jernigan said to me that the best way to figure out how a blind person can operate the machine would be to have blind people figure this out. Now, that made sense to me. So we agreed on a program that would have blind engineers work with us on all aspects of the machine. We would fund this with a program run by the National Federation of the Blind and funded by foundations. I remember lots of late nights with Jim Gashel in his Washington office creating these foundation proposals. I think Jim Gashel will remember those late nights as well. Well, the entire project worked beautifully. We got five foundations to sponsor it. The NFB appointed eight blind scientists, led by Michael Hingson. People remember this story because Hingson became one of the heroes of the 9/11/2001 story. He was at the top of the World Trade Center that had not been destroyed by the airplane. And you couldn't see anything because the air was impossible to see through. But that didn't affect Mike Hingson and his dog, who led people down eighty stories and out of the building just before the building was brought down.

We're back to the reading machine. The intricate design of the reading machine user control became famous. For example, if you hit a key twice it would describe what it does. That's a great idea for user controls today, as I have no idea what most of them do. Jim Gashel and I introduced the machine on January 13, 1976, at a press conference. This might be before many of your times, but I remember this date because this was the only date that Walter Cronkite, the famous anchorman, did not read his signature sign-off himself. The reading machine read "And that's the way it was" on January 13, 1976. I actually ran into Cronkite years later in a restaurant in Martha's Vineyard, and he acknowledged that that was the only time he did not read the signoff himself.

This began what is now a forty-five-year relationship between the National Federation of the Blind and myself. What began as a $20,000 device affordable only by libraries and schools became a few thousand-dollar device that individuals could afford, to now where it's a free app on an iPhone or Android phone. But it's also meant a program for me that taught me about the power of imagination, provided that you have the experience. And for blindness skills and programs, there's no substitute for the experience that the National Federation of the Blind can provide. This is why the Kurzweil reading machine was a success. Unlike major leaders, Dr. Jernigan actually provided for his own next generation through mentoring Dr. Marc Maurer. I remember that happening. And Maurer led the National Federation of the Blind through its next major growth period. In a similar fashion, Mark Riccobono is now inspiring new members using the credibility that Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Maurer were able to bring. I've been going to the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind since 1975. This is the first virtual one, and nobody here remembers the last time this was required, unless you're over one hundred and remember the 1918 flu! I don't think we had virtual video conferences back then, or even the telephone. Well, I very much look forward to our first convention when this pandemic is conquered. I've had the pleasure of shaking the hands of each National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner. This is the first time that a virtual handshake will have to do. For now. Hopefully I will meet you and congratulate you in person in the future. But you are the winners that will lead this organization into the future, to a period where we will have new technologies that you will help create. As just one example, these future capabilities will describe not only words, but everything that is in front of you as well as behind you, so everyone will actually want to use it. It will also describe everything in the room you are in, the next room, or the next building. It will have all those directions of how to get anywhere in the world. We have some portions of this working, but it will require further work inspired by the National Federation of the Blind to prove these capabilities.

I very much look forward to the next forty-five years of leadership from the National Federation of the Blind. I very much intend to be part of that. And hopefully no more pandemics. Thank you very much.

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