Ray Kurzweil was described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. The magazine Inc. ranked him number eight among entrepreneurs in the US, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Kurzweil as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries. He founded Kurzweil Musical Systems in 1982, when he applied reading machine technologies designed for the disabled to musical purposes.
Q• In 1965 you appeared on the CBS television program I’ve Got a Secret, where you performed a piano piece that was composed by a computer you had built. What was that experience like? What was the name of the piece? And how did the computer actually compose it?
Kurzweil• It was a thrill for a high school kid to appear with his invention on national television, especially at a time when there were only three networks and no competition to TV by the Internet. I did name the piece but I don’t remember it. This was my first pattern recognition project, which has been my primary field of interest for the past 50 years. My program analyzed musical compositions by famous composers and created a model of the types of patterns used by each composer. It then composed original music using similar patterns. These were original compositions by the computer, but they did sound like they were composed by a student of the composer the computer had analyzed.
Q• That same year you won first prize in the International Science Fair for the same invention and were also recognized by the Westinghouse Talent Search and personally congratulated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. What was that like?
Kurzweil• That year (1965) was the first time I received national recognition for my work. I remember that, as this was happening, I was already immersed in my next project. I remember my aunt telling me that I should stop and enjoy the recognition, but most of my thoughts were with my next challenge. I often think back on that conversation as that pattern has repeated itself in my life.
Q• Tell us a little about how you met Stevie Wonder and how that meeting prompted you to develop the Kurzweil K250?
Kurzweil• The Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind was announced by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News on January 13, 1976. He used it to read his signature sign off “And that’s the way it was January 13, 1976.” The next day, Stevie Wonder heard me demonstrate it on the Today Show and called my office—we gave him our first production model. In 1982 he invited me to a new studio, called Wonderland, in Los Angeles. He lamented the state of the art at that time in that there were acoustic instruments, which were still the instruments of choice, that created beautiful sounds such as the piano, violin, and guitar. But many of these instruments were not polyphonic, you couldn’t play them at the same time, and most musicians only had the skills to play one instrument. On the other hand there was the synthesizer category, but the basic sounds you had to work with were thin and synthetic sounding. He asked whether it would be possible to apply the very powerful computer control techniques such as sequencing, layering, and sound modification to the beautiful complex sounds of acoustic instruments. I felt that by applying the techniques of advanced signal processing and pattern recognition that this would be possible. We agreed to work together, and with Stevie Wonder as musical advisor, I founded Kurzweil Music Systems on July 1, 1982.
Q• Do you have any thoughts about today’s technology, with regard to making music (Pro Tools, GarageBand, etc.), and do you think the development of your instruments is a direct link to this ongoing process?
Kurzweil• Our goal at Kurzweil Music was and still is to provide the power of computers to the musical creative process. We’re proud to have contributed to this ongoing process. In music, as in essentially every other field, computers are enabling the human creative process. Today with very inexpensive tools, musicians can design entirely new instruments, create their own ensembles from rock bands to orchestras, and even play music without learning the full set of musical playing skills. Computers are putting enormous power in everyone’s hands. For example, with very inexpensive tools, college kids were able to start Google and Facebook. Today, a kid in Africa with a smart phone has access to more information and knowledge than did the President of the United States 15 years ago.
Get you give us a short rundown of what the Singularity is?
Kurzweil• A primary thesis of mine is called the “law of accelerating returns,” which states that the price-performance and capacity of every form of information technology is growing exponentially—that is doubling each period of time where the period is generally about a year. Thirty doublings means multiplying power and capacity by a factor of a billion. My cell phone today is billions of times more powerful per constant dollar than the computer I used as an undergraduate at MIT (a computer that thousands of us all shared). This exponential growth applies both to hardware and software. My consistent projection has been that computers will match human intelligence in every way by 2029 and necessarily soar past it. But this is not an alien invasion of intelligent machines from Mars; these are tools we are creating to extend our own mental reach. We are already smarter than we were just a few years ago because we can now access all of human knowledge with a few keystrokes from a device we carry in our pockets. These intelligent machines will ultimately go inside our bodies and brains making us far healthier and more intelligent. By my calculations we will increase the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion fold by 2045. That will be such a singular change in human history that we borrow this metaphor from physics and call it the Singularity.
This article is from our November-December 2012 issue. Click to order!