By John Williams There are dreamers. There are genius inventors. And there are humanitarians driven to improve the quality of life and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. What happens when you combine the dreamer, genius, and humanitarian into one person? You get Raymond Kurzweil.
A native of Queens, N.Y., Kurzweil is an inventor credited with many innovations that have aided people with disabilities. These include the first print-to-speech reading program for blind people and the first off-the-shelf large vocabulary speech-recognition software system. He also pioneered the first electronic musical instrument capable of reproducing orchestral sounds.
On Apr. 25, Kurzweil accepted the Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The $500,000 prize is the world's largest for invention and innovation. In presenting the award, Charles M. West, president of the MIT, said: "Besides being a great scientist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil is a great humanitarian whose life has been totally committed to enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities through technology."
SIGHT AND SOUND. But Kurzweil is a particularly rare breed of humanitarian, one with the lab smarts to take abstract concepts and turn them into life-saving devices. In fact, through his inventions, Kurzweil has arguably done more to improve the lives of disabled people than anyone else, period. And on the occasion of his big prize - the inventors' equivalent of the Nobel - it seems only appropriate to look back on his career and ask him where assistive technology is going. (Click here for a video interview with Kurzweil.)
The son of a musician, Kurzweil started inventing in high school by building electronic instruments. He also began dabbling in the theory of pattern recognition that would later turn into the technology behind his text-to-speech device, the Kurzweil Reading Machine (KRM), and the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software program that could recognize letters of any type or font size. (The system later became a key technology in the fax machine and desktop scanner.) While he was a student at MIT in the late '60s, Kurzweil created his first company, SELECT, a service that matched college aspirants with appropriate universities. He later sold it for $100,000.
A PRAYER ANSWERED. In 1974, he formed Kurzweil Computer Products (KCP) to tackle the pattern-recognition problem and create a machine that could identify printed characters. His team built the first truly successful OCR system but struggled to find a use for the new technology. "I discovered the purpose for the OCR when a blind man told me the greatest obstacle facing him was the lack of access to a machine that would read memos and other information to him," explains Kurzweil.
That led to the creation of the KRM in 1976. With this device, a whole new world of literature and reading was opened to the blind and visually impaired. Now, many thousands of blind and sighted people around the world use affordable OCR systems. In fact, today's full text-to-speech software and the flat-bed scanner are children of the KRM.
Since we're used to them, the capabilities these devices possess seem relatively ho-hum. But back in the mid-'70s, the KRM seemed utterly miraculous. For example, the world famous blind musician and composer Stevie Wonder credits it with changing his life. Says Wonder: "It gave blind people the one life goal that everyone treasures, and that is independence."
KEYBOARD ORCHESTRA. Wonder and Kurzweil became friends, and the singer later presented Kurzweil with another challenge: to create a compact machine that would allow musicians to emulate a wide range of instruments, even an entire orchestra. During a tour of Wonder's studio in 1982, the singer lamented to Kurzweil, "There are these acoustic instruments with these beautiful sounds -- like pianos, guitars, and violins -- but it's very hard to play them, and they can't be played simultaneously."
Intrigued by the problem, Kurzweil decided to use his powerful computer-based control methods to make Wonder's wish come true. The result emerged in 1984 as the K250 synthesizer, the first truly advanced computer music keyboard and an ancestor of much of the electronic musical equipment used today. Needless to say, Wonder was pleased. And the keyboard allowed all composers, blind or not, to more easily script complex scores.
Those inventions alone would be enough to last most people a lifetime. But they are only a few of the dozen-or-so breakthrough technologies Kurzweil has developed. And he remains actively involved in creating products for people with disabilities.
INTO THE FUTURE. In fact, his next round could prove the most spectacular yet. Through his company, Kurzweil Educational Systems, the inventor is building a handheld text-to-speech device that could provide tremendous assistance to blind and visually impaired individuals who want a mobile reading machine. "People will be able to carry them in their pocket," Kurzweil says. These portable products should be ready in five years.
He also believes speech recognition will have a more dominant role in the lives of disabled people in the near future. "Speech recognition is getting better and better. As we exponentially build more powerful computers, we make continuous gains in the accuracy of speech recognition," says Kurzweil, who also believes the next five years will see the invention of a small "listening machine" that a deaf person can carry to convert speech into type.
As computers grow ever smaller and begin to merge with clothes and other everyday items, such a speech-to-text machine could be worn as a pair of eyeglasses that projects the text of spoken conversations onto the lenses -- even directly onto the retina. That would fit in with Kurzweil's prediction that, by 2010, all communications barriers facing people with disabilities will have disappeared.
LATEST CHALLENGE. A more far-out vision he hopes to realize is a mechanical device that would allow paraplegics to walk and function without wheelchairs. Kurzweil thinks the artificial intelligence and robotics that already exist today could power a skeletal device for walking. The device would be worn under their clothing like a brace and would not be noticeable. "And it would not require surgery," says Kurzweil. Of course, he acknowledges it would be an expensive endeavor. Dean Kamen's marvelous all-terrain, stair-hopping wheelchair cost Johnson & Johnson more than $100 million to develop.
But if anyone can take pie-in-the-sky concepts from blackboard to production, it's Kurzweil. He has a rare mix of creative energy, savvy product insight, and overall business acumen. That's a combination that could someday prove crucial in the construction of a device that would allow paraplegics to walk again. If he pulls that off, Kurzweil could reasonably be declared the most important assistive-technology player in the 21st century, as well. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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