Q&A WITH KURZWEIL'S RAY KURZWEIL
Ray Kurzweil got his start by inventing a machine-reader for blind people, which he sold to Xerox in 1980. Kurzweil's second company, Kurzweil Applied Intelligent Systems, developed one of the first voice-recognition engines, capable of understanding discrete words and turning them into text or commands. Kurzweil AI was rocked by an accounting fraud uncovered in 1994, resulting in prison sentences for the company's CEO and vice-president of sales. No charges were brought against Kurzweil, who denied any knowledge of wrongdoing. The company was sold in 1996 to Lernout & Hauspie. Today, Kurzweil is again focusing on computer systems to aid the disabled. His current venture, Kurzweil Educational Systems, is developing a reading machine for people with dyslexia and other reading and learning disabilities--a group that numbers as many as 50 million Americans. BUSINESS WEEK correspondent Paul C. Judge interviewed Kurzweil in KESI's Waltham (Mass.) offices.
Q: You've been involved in speech recognition from an early stage. What are some of the key factors that are making speech systems more widely available?
Q: How did you first get involved in speech-recognition technology?
At the time, I had a blind guy who was head of international sales. He traveled all over the world on business for us, but he was limited to reading documents in Braille. But doing print-to-speech opened up any printed document to him.
Q: What other kinds of disabilities can be ameliorated through speech-recognition technology?
Computers are an ideal technology for overcoming the handicaps of disabled people. We're not creating computers that are far-ranging cybernetic geniuses. When these systems go outside their area of expertise, they start to flounder. But a disabled person is a normal intelligent person, with a narrow deficit. That's a perfect match for today's computer technology.
Another disabled technology is a sensory aid for the deaf. Most deaf can't lip read unless they are close. It doesn't work over the phone. That's a significant handicap for deaf people, not to be able to speak over the phone. Real-time text-to-speech and speech-to-text can address that. The technology is good enough right now. It needs to be packaged in the right way. Ultimately, I can imagine a screen with a speech-to-text reader embedded into a pair of eyeglasses that deaf people could wear.
Q: What about applications for general use that will incorporate speech recognition?
Q: What are the key obstacles to widespread use of speech-recognition systems?
Another obstacle is natural-language understanding. It's not a yes or no feature, but something that will get built in gradually. It makes sense, for example, that speech technology should move into Web browsers. The universe of knowledge on the Web is huge; speech is a good way for people to get access to it. But speech-enabled browsers won't be able to understand the subtleties of a request for another couple of decades.
So the key obstacles I see ahead are 1) improving accuracy; 2) improving natural-language understanding, to the point where people can search for articles on the Web using normal conversational commands; and 3) opening up foreign languages to non-native speakers.
Q: Do you see any particular applications in the next few years?
The PC will become like a personal research assistant. The computer will clarify things, ask questions about what you want it to do, the kinds of things you're looking for, and then go do it. It's the same kind of discourse people have when they are working together.
Q: How soon before natural language capabilities are built into these systems?
Q: You had a close view of Microsoft's decision to invest $45 million in Lernout & Hauspie last fall, by virtue of your advisory role at L&H after it bought Kurzweil Applied Intelligent Systems. What was Microsoft's rationale for that investment?
Updated Feb. 12, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.