Patricia Maurer, Marc Maurer, and Ray Kurzweil chat at the black-tie dinner in Dr. Kurzweil's honor.
From the Editor: On April 25, 2001, President and Mrs. Maurer went to Washington, D.C., to take part in a gala dinner and awards ceremony honoring Dr. Raymond Kurzweil, longtime friend of the NFB and inventor of the world's first reading machine for blind people. Dr. Maurer had nominated Dr. Kurzweil for the Lemelson‑MIT prize which he received that evening, and in his remarks Dr. Kurzweil acknowledged his relationship with the Federation and what he had learned from working with us.
We are delighted to report this distinguished honor and value our ongoing friendship with Ray Kurzweil. With slight alterations the following is the press release circulated at the time of the award ceremony:
The Lemelson‑MIT Program awarded its 2001 $500,000 prize-‑the world's largest single award for invention and innovation-‑to futurist Raymond Kurzweil, a pioneer of pattern-recognition technologies, who has made a career of helping others while showing a flair for integrating technology and the arts. Over the past thirty-five years Kurzweil has produced a lengthy list of achievements and innovations that have enriched society, including advancing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies; founding, developing, and selling four successful companies; and writing two best‑selling books that support his predictions for the twenty-first century. Kurzweil is being recognized by the Lemelson‑MIT Program for the breadth and scope of his inventive work and for his commitment to enhancing through technology the quality of life for people with disabilities.
Kurzweil is credited with many invention firsts that span such diverse fields as pattern recognition, speech technology, music, and the visual arts. These include the first omni‑font optical character recognition (OCR) computer program; the first print‑to‑speech reading machine for the blind; the first text‑to‑speech synthesizer; the first electronic musical instrument capable of reproducing the sounds of orchestral instruments; and the first commercially‑marketed large vocabulary speech‑recognition system. Kurzweil's latest innovation, a virtual recording and performing artist called Ramona, represents an advance in virtual reality technology. Kurzweil's landmark invention is the Kurzweil Reading Machine, introduced in 1976, which converts print to speech. To date the Kurzweil Reading Machine has made it possible for many thousands of blind people to read the text of ordinary books, magazines, and other printed documents. The first owner of a Kurzweil Reading Machine was legendary musician Stevie Wonder, who contacted Kurzweil after hearing about the device.
"The Kurzweil Reading Machine was a breakthrough that changed my life," says Wonder, who helped nominate Kurzweil for the $500,000 Lemelson‑MIT Prize. "With the Kurzweil Reading Machine, I could read anything I wanted with complete privacy: music lyrics, letters from my children, the latest best sellers and magazines, memos from my business associates. It gave blind people the one thing that everyone treasures, which is independence."
Consequently it was Kurzweil's friendship with Wonder which led to another major innovation: the Kurzweil 250 Synthesizer (K250). On a tour through Wonder's studio in 1982, Kurzweil learned of Wonder's frustrations with the current technical limitations that prevented the bridging of electronic music composition with the sounds of acoustic instruments. Introduced commercially in 1984, the K250 is the first electronic musical instrument to emulate successfully the complex sound response of a grand piano and virtually all other orchestral instruments.
Currently one of Kurzweil's projects is Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence Network (http://www.KurzweilAI.net), a Web‑based subsidiary of Kurzweil Technologies, Inc. (KTI) that showcases ideas of leading technologists and big thinkers. The main concentration of KurzweilAI.net is on the exponential growth of intelligence, both biological and artificial. "Ramona," Kurzweil's alter ego and a lifelike, photo‑realistic, interactive avatar (virtual personality) with conversational abilities, simultaneously guides users through KurzweilAI.net and showcases the latest advancements in intelligent machines.
Other KTI companies include Medical Learning Company (MLC), developer of FamilyPractice.com (http://www.FamilyPractice.com), a comprehensive online resource for family practice physicians, which has also developed a virtual patient for use in medical training. MLC is a joint venture between KTI and the American Board of Family Practice, the second largest medical specialty board in the U.S. Kurzweil CyberArt Technologies (KCAT; http://www.KurzweilCyberArt.com) develops and markets artificially intelligent software to aid the creative process, including Ray Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poet that helps users write poetry and song lyrics, and the forthcoming AARON (developed by computer scientist and artist Harold Cohen), which paints original art on computer screens. He has also developed FatKat, Inc. (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies), which is currently developing pattern-recognition‑based technology to make stock market investment decisions.
Previous recipients of the annual $500,000 Lemelson‑MIT Prize include Thomas Fogarty, surgical pioneer and inventor of the embolectomy balloon catheter; Carver Mead, physicist who revolutionized the field of microelectronics; Robert Langer, inventor of the first FDA‑approved brain cancer treatment; and Douglas Englebart, computing visionary and inventor of the computer mouse.
Kurzweil was formally presented with the Lemelson‑MIT Prize on Wednesday, April 25, at a special ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. This year the ceremony was held in conjunction with "Nobel Week," a series of programs honoring the centennial of the Nobel Prizes, hosted by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Kurzweil gratefully acknowledges the role that his creative parents as well as his teachers and peers have played in his success as an inventor over the years. "Encouragement is necessary for young inventors to succeed. It is important for kids to realize that they have the authority to explore their own ideas and that it is okay to fail," he says.
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Lemelson‑MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson‑MIT Prize. The Program encourages young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering, technology, and entrepreneurship.