Kurzweil on or prior to July 5, 2005
February 12, 1948
Queens, New York City, U.S.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (B.S.)
Author, entrepreneur, futurist and inventor
Sonya Rosenwald Kurzweil (1975–present)
Grace Murray Hopper Award (1978)
National Medal of Technology (1999)
Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil born February 12, 1948) is an American author, computer scientist, inventor and futurist. Aside from futurism, he is involved in fields such as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments. He has written books on health, artificial intelligence (AI), transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism. Kurzweil is a public advocate for the futurist and transhumanist movements, and gives public talks to share his optimistic outlook on life extension technologies and the future of nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology.
Kurzweil was the principal inventor of the first charge-coupled device flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first commercial text-to-speech synthesizer, the Kurzweil K250 music synthesizer capable of simulating the sound of the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.
Kurzweil received the 1999 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the United States’ highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony. He was the recipient of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for 2001, the world’s largest for innovation. And in 2002 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, established by the U.S. Patent Office. He has received twenty-one honorary doctorates, and honors from three U.S. presidents. Kurzweil has been described as a “restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. PBS includ ed Kurzweil as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America” along with other inventors of the past two centuries. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among the “most fascinating” entrepreneurs in the United States and called him “Edison’s rightful heir”.
Kurzweil has written seven books, five of which have been national bestsellers. The Age of Spiritual Machines has been translated into 9 languages and was the #1 best-selling book on Amazon in science. Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near was a New York Times bestseller, and has been the #1 book on Amazon in both science and philosophy. Kurzweil speaks widely to audiences both public and private and regularly delivers keynote speeches at industry conferences like DEMO, SXSW and TED. He maintains the news website KurzweilAI.net, which has over three million readers annually.
Life, inventions, and business career
Ray Kurzweil grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. He was born to secular Jewish parents who had emigrated from Austria just before the onset of World War II. He was exposed via Unitarian Universalism to a diversity of religious faiths during his upbringing. His Unitarian church had the philosophy of many paths to the truth – the religious education consisted of spending six months on a single religion before moving onto the next. His father was a musician, a noted conductor, and a music educator. His mother was a visual artist.
Kurzweil decided he wanted to be an inventor at the age of five. As a young boy, Kurzweil had an inventory of parts from various construction toys he’d been given and old electronic gadgets he’d collected from neighbors. In his youth, Kurzweil was an avid reader of science fiction literature. At the age of eight, nine, and ten, he read the entire Tom Swift Jr. series. At the age of seven or eight, he built a robotic puppet theater and robotic game. He was involved with computers by the age of twelve (in 1960), when only a dozen computers existed in all of New York City, and built computing devices and statistical programs for the predecessor of Head Start. At the age of fourteen, Kurzweil wrote a paper detailing his theory of the neocortex. His parents were involved with the arts, and he is quoted in the documentary Transcendent Man as saying that the household always produced discussions about the future and technology.
Kurzweil attended Martin Van Buren High School. During class, he often held onto his class textbooks to seemingly participate, but instead, focused on his own projects which were hidden behind the book. His uncle, an engineer at Bell Labs, taught young Kurzweil the basics of computer science. In 1963, at age fifteen, he wrote his first computer program. He created a pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles. In 1965, he was invited to appear on the CBS television program I’ve Got a Secret, where he performed a piano piece that was composed by a computer he also had built. Later that year, he won first prize in the International Science Fair for the invention Kurzweil’s submission to Westinghouse Talent Search of his first computer program alongside several other projects resulted in him being one of its national winners, which allowed him to be personally congratulated by President Lyndon B. Johnson during a White House ceremony. These activities collectively impressed upon Kurzweil the belief that nearly any problem could be overcome.
While in high school, Kurzweil had corresponded with Marvin Minsky and was invited to visit him at MIT, which he did. Kurzweil also visited Frank Rosenblatt at Cornell.
He obtained a B.S. in computer science and literature in 1970 at MIT. He went to MIT to study with Marvin Minsky. He took all of the computer programming courses (eight or nine) offered at MIT in the first year and a half.
In 1968, during his sophomore year at MIT, Kurzweil started a company that used a computer program to match high school students with colleges. The program, called the Select College Consulting Program, was designed by him and compared thousands of different criteria about each college with questionnaire answers submitted by each student applicant. Around this time, he sold the company to Harcourt, Brace & World for $100,000 (roughly $670,000 in 2013 dollars) plus royalties.
In 1974, Kurzweil founded Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. and led development of the first omni-font optical character recognition system, a computer program capable of recognizing text written in any normal font. Before that time, scanners had only been able to read text written in a few fonts. He decided that the best application of this technology would be to create a reading machine, which would allow blind people to understand written text by having a computer read it to them aloud. However, this device required the invention of two enabling technologies—the CCD flatbed scanner and the text-to-speech synthesizer. Development of these technologies was completed at other institutions such as Bell Labs, and on January 13, 1976, the finished product was unveiled during a news conference headed by him and the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. Called the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the device covered an entire tabletop.
Kurzweil’s next major business venture began in 1978, when Kurzweil Computer Products began selling a commercial version of the optical character recognition computer program. LexisNexis was one of the first customers, and bought the program to upload paper legal and news documents onto its nascent online databases.
Kurzweil sold his Kurzweil Computer Products to Lernout & Hauspie. Following the legal and bankruptcy problems of the latter, the system became a subsidiary of Xerox later known as Scansoft and now as Nuance Communications, and he functioned as a consultant for the former until 1995.
Kurzweil’s next business venture was in the realm of electronic music technology. After a 1982 meeting with Stevie Wonder, in which the latter lamented the divide in capabilities and qualities between electronic synthesizers and traditional musical instruments, Kurzweil was inspired to create a new generation of music synthesizers capable of accurately duplicating the sounds of real instruments. Kurzweil Music Systems was founded in the same year, and in 1984, the Kurzweil K250 was unveiled. The machine was capable of imitating a number of instruments, and in tests musicians were unable to discern the difference between the Kurzweil K250 on piano mode from a normal grand piano. The recording and mixing abilities of the machine, coupled with its abilities to imitate different instruments, made it possible for a single user to compose and play an entire orchestral piece.
Kurzweil Music Systems was sold to South Korean musical instrument manufacturer Young Chang in 1990. As with Xerox, Kurzweil remained as a consultant for several years. Hyundai acquired Young Chang in 2006 and in January 2007 appointed Raymond Kurzweil as Chief Strategy Officer of Kurzweil Music Systems.
Concurrent with Kurzweil Music Systems, Kurzweil created the company Kurzweil Applied Intelligence (KAI) to develop computer speech recognition systems for commercial use. The first product, which debuted in 1987, was an early speech recognition program.
Kurzweil started Kurzweil Educational Systems in 1996 to develop new pattern-recognition-based computer technologies to help people with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in school. Products includ e the Kurzweil 1000 text-to-speech converter software program, which enables a computer to read electronic and scanned text aloud to blind or visually impaired users, and the Kurzweil 3000 program, which is a multifaceted electronic learning system that helps with reading, writing, and study skills.
During the 1990s, Kurzweil founded the Medical Learning Company. The company’s products includ ed an interactive computer education program for doctors and a computer-simulated patient. Around the same time, Kurzweil started KurzweilCyberArt.com—a website featuring computer programs to assist the creative art process. The site used to offer free downloads of a program called AARON—a visual art synthesizer developed by Harold Cohen—and of “Kurzweil’s Cybernetic Poet”, which automatically creates poetry. During this period he also started KurzweilAI.net, a website devoted towards showcasing news of scientific developments, publicizing the ideas of high-tech thinkers and critics alike, and promoting futurist-related discussion among the general population through the Mind-X forum.
In 1999, Kurzweil created a hedge fund called “FatKat” (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies), which began trading in 2006. He has stated that the ultimate aim is to improve the performance of FatKat’s A.I. investment software program, enhancing its ability to recognize patterns in “currency fluctuations and stock-ownership trends.” He predicted in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, that computers will one day prove superior to the best human financial minds at making profitable investment decisions. In June 2005, Kurzweil introduced the “Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader” (K-NFB Reader)—a pocket-sized device consisting of a digital camera and computer unit. Like the Kurzweil Reading Machine of almost 30 years before, the K-NFB Reader is designed to aid blind people by reading written text aloud. The newer machine is portable and scans text through digital camera images, while the older machine is large and scans text through flatbed scanning.
In December 2012, Kurzweil was hired by Google in a full-time position to “work on new projects involving machine learning and language processing”. He was personally hired by Google co-founder Larry Page. Larry Page and Kurzweil agreed on a one-sentence job description: “to bring natural language understanding to Google”.
He received a Technical Grammy on February 8, 2015, recognizing his diverse technical and creative accomplishments. For purposes of the Grammy, perhaps most notable was the aforementioned Kurzweil K250.
Kurzweil has joined the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics company. In the event of his declared death, Kurzweil plans to be perfused with cryoprotectants, vitrified in liquid nitrogen, and stored at an Alcor facility in the hope that future medical technology will be able to repair his tissues and revive him.
Kurzweil is agnostic about the existence of a soul. On the possibility of divine intelligence, Kurzweil is quoted as saying, “Does God exist? I would say, ‘Not yet.'”
Kurzweil married Sonya Rosenwald Kurzweil in 1975 and has two children. Sonya Kurzweil, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Newton MA, working with women, children, parents and families. She holds faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and William James College for Graduate Education in Psychology. Her research interests and publications are in the area of psychotherapy practice. Dr. Kurzweil also serves as an active Overseer at Boston Children’s Museum.
He has a son, Ethan Kurzweil, who is a venture capitalist, and a daughter, Amy Kurzweil, who is a writer and cartoonist.
Ray Kurzweil is a cousin of writer Allen Kurzweil.
Kurzweil said “I realize that most inventions fail not because the R&D department can’t get them to work, but because the timing is wrong—not all of the enabling factors are at play where they are needed. Inventing is a lot like surfing: you have to anticipate and catch the wave at just the right moment.”
For the past several decades, Kurzweil’s most effective and common approach to doing creative work has been conducted during his lucid dreamlike state which immediately precedes his awakening state. He claims to have constructed inventions, solved difficult problems, such as algorithmic, business strategy, organizational, and interpersonal problems, and written speeches in this state.
Kurzweil’s first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, was published in 1990. The nonfiction work discusses the history of computer artificial intelligence (AI) and forecasts future developments. Other experts in the field of AI contribute heavily to the work in the form of essays. The Association of American Publishers’ awarded it the status of Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990.
In 1993, Kurzweil published a book on nutrition called The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life. The book’s main idea is that high levels of fat intake are the cause of many health disorders common in the U.S., and thus that cutting fat consumption down to 10% of the total calories consumed would be optimal for most people.
In 1999, Kurzweil published The Age of Spiritual Machines, which further elucidates his theories regarding the future of technology, which themselves stem from his analysis of long-term trends in biological and technological evolution. Much emphasis is on the likely course of AI development, along with the future of computer architecture.
Kurzweil’s next book, published in 2004, returned to human health and nutrition. Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever was co-authored by Terry Grossman, a medical doctor and specialist in alternative medicine.
The Singularity Is Near, published in 2006, was made into a movie starring Pauley Perrette from NCIS. In February 2007, Ptolemaic Productions acquired the rights to The Singularity is Near, The Age of Spiritual Machines and Fantastic Voyage including the rights to film Kurzweil’s life and ideas for the documentary film Transcendent Man, which was directed by Barry Ptolemy.
Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, a follow-up to Fantastic Voyage, was released on April 28, 2009.
Kurzweil’s book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, was released on Nov. 13, 2012. In it Kurzweil describes his Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind, the theory that the neocortex is a hierarchical system of pattern recognizers, and argues that emulating this architecture in machines could lead to an artificial superintelligence.
Kurzweil wrote and co-produced a movie directed by Anthony Waller, called The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About the Future, in 2010 based, in part, on his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near. Part fiction, part non-fiction, he interviews 20 big thinkers like Marvin Minsky, plus there is a B-line narrative story that illustrates some of the ideas, where a computer avatar (Ramona) saves the world from self-replicating microscopic robots. In addition to his movie, an independent, feature-length documentary was made about Kurzweil, his life, and his ideas, called Transcendent Man. Filmmakers Barry Ptolemy and Felicia Ptolemy followed Kurzweil, documenting his global speaking-tour. Premiered in 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Transcendent Man documents Kurzweil’s quest to reveal mankind’s ultimate destiny and explores many of the ideas found in his New York Times bestselling book, The Singularity Is Near, including his concept exponential growth, radical life expansion, and how we will transcend our biology. The Ptolemys documented Kurzweil’s stated goal of bringing back his late father using AI. The film also features critics who argue against Kurzweil’s predictions.
In 2010, an independent documentary film called Plug & Pray premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival, in which Kurzweil and one of his major critics, the late Joseph Weizenbaum, argue about the benefits of eternal life.
The feature-length documentary film The Singularity by independent filmmaker Doug Wolens (released at the end of 2012), showcasing Kurzweil, has been acclaimed as “a large-scale achievement in its documentation of futurist and counter-futurist ideas” and “the best documentary on the Singularity to date.”
Kurzweil frequently comments on the application of cell-size nanotechnology to the workings of the human brain and how this could be applied to building AI. While being interviewed for a February 2009 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Kurzweil expressed a desire to construct a genetic copy of his late father, Fredric Kurzweil, from DNA within his grave site. This feat would be achieved by exhumation and extraction of DNA, constructing a clone of Fredric and retrieving memories and recollections—from Ray’s mind—of his father. Kurzweil kept all of his father’s records, notes, and pictures in order to maintain as much of his father as he could. Ray is known for taking over 200 pills a day, meant to reprogram his biochemistry. This, according to Ray, is only a precursor to the devices at the nano scale that will eventually replace a blood-cell, self updating of specific pathogens to improve the immune system.
The Law of Accelerating Returns
Main article: Accelerating change
In his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil proposed “The Law of Accelerating Returns”, according to which the rate of change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems (including the growth of technologies) tends to increase exponentially. He gave further focus to this issue in a 2001 essay entitled “The Law of Accelerating Returns”, which proposed an extension of Moore’s law to a wide variety of technologies, and used this to argue in favor of Vernor Vinge’s concept of a technological singularity. Kurzweil suggests that this exponential technological growth is counter-intuitive to the way our brains perceive the world—since our brains were biologically inherited from humans living in a world that was linear and local—and, as a consequence, he claims it has encouraged great skepticism in his future projections.
Stance on the future of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics
Kurzweil is working with the Army Science Board to develop a rapid response system to deal with the possible abuse of biotechnology. He suggests that the same technologies that are empowering us to reprogram biology away from cancer and heart disease could be used by a bioterrorist to reprogram a biological virus to be more deadly, communicable, and stealthy. However, he suggests that we have the scientific tools to successfully defend against these attacks, similar to the way we defend against computer software viruses. He has testified before Congress on the subject of nanotechnology, advocating that nanotechnology has the potential to solve serious global problems such as poverty, disease, and climate change. “Nanotech Could Give Global Warming a Big Chill”.
In media appearances, Kurzweil has stressed the extreme potential dangers of nanotechnology but argues that in practice, progress cannot be stopped because that would require a totalitarian system, and any attempt to do so would drive dangerous technologies underground and deprive responsible scientists of the tools needed for defense. He suggests that the proper place of regulation is to ensure that technological progress proceeds safely and quickly, but does not deprive the world of profound benefits. He stated, “To avoid dangers such as unrestrained nanobot replication, we need relinquishment at the right level and to place our highest priority on the continuing advance of defensive technologies, staying ahead of destructive technologies. An overall strategy should includ e a streamlined regulatory process, a global program of monitoring for unknown or evolving biological pathogens, temporary moratoriums, raising public awareness, international cooperation, software reconnaissance, and fostering values of liberty, tolerance, and respect for knowledge and diversity.”
Health and aging
Kurzweil admits that he cared little for his health until age 35, when he was found to suffer from a glucose intolerance, an early form of type II diabetes (a major risk factor for heart disease). Kurzweil then found a doctor (Terry Grossman, M.D.) who shares his somewhat unconventional beliefs to develop an extreme regimen involving hundreds of pills, chemical intravenous treatments, red wine, and various other methods to attempt to live longer. Kurzweil was ingesting “250 supplements, eight to 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea” every day and drinking several glasses of red wine a week in an effort to “reprogram” his biochemistry. Lately, he has cut down the number of supplement pills to 150.
Kurzweil has made a number of bold claims for his health regimen. In his book The Singularity Is Near, he claimed that he brought his cholesterol level down from the high 200s to 130, raised his HDL (high-density lipoprotein) from below 30 to 55, and lowered his homocysteine from an unhealthy 11 to a much safer 6.2. He also claimed that his C-reactive protein “and all of my other indexes (for heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions) are at ideal levels.” He further claimed that his health regimen, including dramatically reducing his fat intake, successfully “reversed” his type 2 diabetes. (The Singularity Is Near, p. 211)
He has written three books on the subjects of nutrition, health, and immortality: The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. In all, he recommends that other people emulate his health practices to the best of their abilities. Kurzweil and his current “anti-aging” doctor, Terry Grossman, now have two websites promoting their first and second book.
Kurzweil asser ts that in the future, everyone will live forever. In a 2013 interview, he said that in 15 years, medical technology could add more than a year to one’s remaining life expectancy for each year that passes, and we could then “outrun our own deaths”. Among other things, he has supported the SENS Research Foundation’s approach to finding a way to repair aging damage, and has encouraged the general public to hasten their research by donating.
Kurzweil’s view of the human neocortex
According to Kurzweil, technologists will be creating synthetic neocortexes based on the operating principles of the human neocortex with the primary purpose of extending our own neocortexes. He claims to believe that the neocortex of an adult human consists of approximately 300 million pattern recognizers. He draws on the commonly accepted belief that the primary anatomical difference between humans and other primates that allowed for superior intellectual abilities was the evolution of a larger neocortex. He claims that the six-layered neocortex deals with increasing abstraction from one layer to the next. He says that at the low levels, the neocortex may seem cold and mechanical because it can only make simple decisions, but at the higher levels of the hierarchy, the neocortex is likely to be dealing with concepts like being funny, being sexy, expressing a loving sentiment, creating a poem or understanding a poem, etc. He claims to believe that these higher levels of the human neocortex were the enabling factors to permit the human development of language, technology, art, and science. He stated, “If the quantitative improvement from primates to humans with the big forehead was the enabling factor to allow for language, technology, art, and science, what kind of qualitative leap can we make with another quantitative increase? Why not go from 300 million pattern recognizers to a billion?”
Encouraging futurism and transhumanism
Kurzweil’s standing as a futurist and transhumanist has led to his involvement in several singularity-themed organizations. In December 2004, Kurzweil joined the advisory board of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. In October 2005, Kurzweil joined the scientific advisory board of the Lifeboat Foundation. On May 13, 2006, Kurzweil was the first speaker at the Singularity Summit at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. In May 2013, Kurzweil was the keynote speaker at the 2013 proceeding of the Research, Innovation, Start-up and Employment (RISE) international conference in Seoul, Korea Republic.
In February 2009, Kurzweil, in collaboration with Google and the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, announced the creation of the Singularity University training center for corporate executives and government officials. The University’s self-described mission is to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges”. Using Vernor Vinge’s Singularity concept as a foundation, the university offered its first nine-week graduate program to 40 students in June, 2009.
Main article: Predictions made by Ray Kurzweil
Kurzweil’s first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, presented his ideas about the future. It was written from 1986 to 1989 and published in 1990. Building on Ithiel de Sola Pool’s “Technologies of Freedom” (1983), Kurzweil claims to have forecast the dissolution of the Soviet Union due to new technologies such as cellular phones and fax machines disempowering authoritarian governments by removing state control over the flow of information. In the book, Kurzweil also extrapolated preexisting trends in the improvement of computer chess software performance to predict that computers would beat the best human players “by the year 2000”. In May 1997, chess World Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue computer in a well-publicized chess match.
Perhaps most significantly, Kurzweil foresaw the explosive growth in worldwide Internet use that began in the 1990s. At the time of the publication of The Age of Intelligent Machines, there were only 2.6 million Internet users in the world, and the medium was unreliable, difficult to use, and deficient in content. He also stated that the Internet would explode not only in the number of users but in content as well, eventually granting users access “to international networks of libraries, data bases, and information services”. Additionally, Kurzweil claims to have correctly foreseen that the preferred mode of Internet access would inevitably be through wireless systems, and he was also correct to estimate that the latter would become practical for widespread use in the early 21st century.
In October 2010, Kurzweil released his report, “How My Predictions Are Faring” in PDF format, which analyzes the predictions he made in his book The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity is Near (2005). Of the 147 total predictions, Kurzweil claims that 115 were ‘entirely correct’, 12 were “essentially correct”, and 17 were “partially correct”, and only 3 were “wrong”. Adding together the “entirely” and “essentially” correct, Kurzweil’s claimed accuracy rate comes to 86%.
Daniel Lyons, writing in Newsweek magazine, criticized Kurzweil for some of his predictions that turned out to be wrong, such as the economy continuing to boom from the 1998 dot-com through 2009, a US company having a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion, a supercomputer achieving 20 petaflops, speech recognition being in widespread use and cars that would drive themselves using sensors installed in highways; all by 2009. To the charge that a 20 petaflop supercomputer was not produced in the time he predicted, Kurzweil responded that he considers Google a giant supercomputer, and that it is indeed capable of 20 petaflops.
Kurzweil’s predictions for 2009 were mostly inaccurate, claims Forbes magazine. For example, Kurzweil predicted, “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition.” This is not the case.
In 1999, Kurzweil published a second book titled The Age of Spiritual Machines, which goes into more depth explaining his futurist ideas. The third and final part of the book is devoted to predictions over the coming century, from 2009 through 2099. In The Singularity Is Near he makes fewer concrete short-term predictions, but includ es many longer-term visions.
He states that with radical life extension will come radical life enhancement. He says he is confident that within 10 years we will have the option to spend some of our time in 3D virtual environments that appear just as real as real reality, but these will not yet be made possible via direct interaction with our nervous system. “If you look at video games and how we went from pong to the virtual reality we have available today, it is highly likely that immortality in essence will be possible.” He believes that 20 to 25 years from now, we will have millions of blood-cell sized devices, known as nanobots, inside our bodies fighting against diseases, improving our memory, and cognitive abilities. Kurzweil says that a machine will pass the Turing test by 2029, and that around 2045, “the pace of change will be so astonishingly quick that we won’t be able to keep up, unless we enhance our own intelligence by merging with the intelligent machines we are creating”. Kurzweil states that humans will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence that becomes increasingly dominated by its non-biological component. He stresses that “AI is not an intelligent invasion from Mars. These are brain extenders that we have created to expand our own mental reach. They are part of our civilization. They are part of who we are. So over the next few decades our human-machine civilization will become increasingly dominated by its non-biological component. In Transcendent Man Kurzweil states “We humans are going to start linking with each other and become a metaconnection we will all be connected and all be omnipresent, plugged into this global network that is connected to billions of people, and filled with data.” Kurzweil states in a press conference that we are the only species that goes beyond our limitations- “we didn’t stay in the caves, we didn’t stay on the planet, and we’re not going to stay with the limitations of our biology”. In his singularity based documentary he is quoted saying “I think people are fooling themselves when they say they have accepted death”.
In 2008, Kurzweil said in an expert panel in the National Academy of Engineering that solar power will scale up to produce all the energy needs of Earth’s people in 20 years. According to Kurzweil, we only need to capture 1 part in 10,000 of the energy from the Sun that hits Earth’s surface to meet all of humanity’s energy needs.
Kurzweil was referred to as “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes and as a “restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal. PBS includ ed Kurzweil as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America” along with other inventors of the past two centuries. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among the “most fascinating” entrepreneurs in the United States and called him “Edison’s rightful heir”.
Although the idea of a technological singularity is a popular concept in science fiction, some authors such as Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling have voiced skepticism about its real-world plausibility. Sterling expressed his views on the singularity scenario in a talk at the Long Now Foundation entitled The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole. Other prominent AI thinkers and computer scientists such as Daniel Dennett, Rodney Brooks, David Gelernter and Paul Allen also criticized Kurzweil’s projections.
In the cover article of the December 2010 issue of IEEE Spectrum, John Rennie criticizes Kurzweil for several predictions that failed to become manifest by the originally predicted date. “Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil’s brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable.”
Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, agrees with Kurzweil’s timeline of future progress, but thinks that technologies such as AI, nanotechnology and advanced biotechnology will create a dystopian world. Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation, has called the notion of a technological singularity “intelligent design for the IQ 140 people…This proposition that we’re heading to this point at which everything is going to be just unimaginably different—it’s fundamentally, in my view, driven by a religious impulse. And all of the frantic arm-waving can’t obscure that fact for me.”
Some critics have argued more strongly against Kurzweil and his ideas. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter has said of Kurzweil’s and Hans Moravec’s books: “It’s an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it’s very hard to disentangle the two, because these are smart people; they’re not stupid.” Biologist P. Z. Myers has criticized Kurzweil’s predictions as being based on “New Age spiritualism” rather than science and says that Kurzweil does not understand basic biology. VR pioneer Jaron Lanier has even described Kurzweil’s ideas as “cybernetic totalism” and has outlined his views on the culture surrounding Kurzweil’s predictions in an essay for Edge.org entitled One Half of a Manifesto.
British philosopher John Gray argues that contemporary science is what magic was for ancient civilizations. It gives a sense of hope for those who are willing to do almost anything in order to achieve eternal life. He quotes Kurzweil’s Singularity as another example of a trend which has almost always been present in the history of mankind.
The Brain Makers, a history of artificial intelligence written in 1994 by HP Newquist, noted that “Born with the same gift for self-promotion that was a character trait of people like P.T. Barnum and Ed Feigenbaum, Kurzweil had no problems talking up his technical prowess . . . Ray Kurzweil was not noted for his understatement.”
In a 2015 paper, William D. Nordhaus of Yale University, takes an economic look at the impacts of an impending technological singularity. He comments “There is remarkably little writing on Singularity in the modern macroeconomic literature.” Nordhaus supposes that the Singularity could arise from either the demand or supply side of a market economy, but for information technology to proceed at the kind of pace Kurzweil suggests, there would have to be significant productivity trade-offs. Namely, in order to devote more resources to producing super computers we must decrease our production of non-information technology goods. Using a variety of econometric methods, Nordhaus runs six supply side tests and one demand side test to track the macroeconomic viability of such steep rises in information technology output. Of the seven tests only two indicated that a Singularity was economically possible and both of those two predicted, at minimum, 100 years before it would occur.
Awards and honors
First place in the 1965 International Science Fair for inventing the classical music synthesizing computer.
The 1978 Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. The award is given annually to one “outstanding young computer professional” and is accompanied by a $35,000 prize. Kurzweil won it for his invention of the Kurzweil Reading Machine.
In 1986, Kurzweil was named Honorary Chairman for Innovation of the White House Conference on Small Business by President Reagan.
In 1988, Kurzweil was named Inventor of the Year by MIT and the Boston Museum of Science.
In 1990, Kurzweil was voted Engineer of the Year by the over one million readers of Design News Magazine and received their third annual Technology Achievement Award.
The 1994 Dickson Prize in Science. One is awarded every year by Carnegie Mellon University to individuals who have “notably advanced the field of science.” Both a medal and a $50,000 prize are presented to winners.
The 1998 “Inventor of the Year” award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The 1999 National Medal of Technology. This is the highest award the President of the United States can bestow upon individuals and groups for pioneering new technologies, and the President dispenses the award at his discretion. Bill Clinton presented Kurzweil with the National Medal of Technology during a White House ceremony in recognition of Kurzweil’s development of computer-based technologies to help the disabled.
The 2000 Telluride Tech Festival Award of Technology. Two other individuals also received the same honor that year. The award is presented yearly to people who “exemplify the life, times and standard of contribution of Tesla, Westinghouse and Nunn.”
The 2001 Lemelson-MIT Prize for a lifetime of developing technologies to help the disabled and to enrich the arts. Only one is awarded each year – it is given to highly successful, mid-career inventors. A $500,000 award accompanies the prize.
Kurzweil was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002 for inventing the Kurzweil Reading Machine. The organization “honors the women and men responsible for the great technological advances that make human, social and economic progress possible.”Fifteen other people were inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year.
The Arthur C. Clarke Lifetime Achievement Award on April 20, 2009 for lifetime achievement as an inventor and futurist in computer-based technologies.
In 2011, Kurzweil was named a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.
In 2013, Kurzweil was honored as a Silicon Valley Visionary Award winner on June 26 by SVForum.
In 2014, Kurzweil was honored with the American Visionary Art Museum’s Grand Visionary Award on January 30.
Kurzweil has received 20 honorary doctorates in science, engineering, music and humane letters from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Hofstra University and other leading colleges and universities, as well as honors from three U.S. presidents – Clinton, Reagan and Johnson.
Kurzweil has received seven national and international film awards including the CINE Golden Eagle Award and the Gold Medal for Science Education from the International Film and TV Festival of New York.