Who is Ray Kurzweil?
My first exposure to Raymond Kurzweil, better known as Ray, came while reading Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year. In the January 2009 issue, Kurzweil appeared in David Kushner’s article “When Man and Machine Merge”. Kurzweil’s words in that article stuck with me. Ray Kurzweil said in Rolling Stone that he wanted to clone his dead father via an exact genetic copy obtained from DNA in the father’s grave. That’s right — Kurzweil expressed an honest desire to build a copy of his dead dad by inventing special nanorobots that could enter his father’s grave and bring DNA samples back. The idea behind this clone? To assist Ray in calling up memories of his father.
Ray Kurzweil could be described as an author, an inventor, a “futurist”, and a kind of scientific maven, attempting to predict and analyze the behaviors of the technological future. If I make Kurzweil sound like a cartoon character or a mad scientist then I’m getting the job done.
Ray Kurzweil earned two degrees from MIT — one in Computer Science and another in Literature. Forbes magazine called Kurzweil “the ultimate thinking machine” — the Montreal Gazette called him “the modern Thomas Edison”. Kurzweil is a friend of Stevie Wonder, the author of the popular “10% Solution for a Healthy Life”, and a man that has earned honorary degrees in 14 of the last 30 years. In short, he’s an intellectual stud.
Kurzweil was born into a family that reads like a dream team for creating a brilliant child. Born in Queens to Jewish parents who barely escaped Austria before the onset of World War Two, Kurzweil started life in the Unitarian church, a denomination that puts great emphasis on exposing children to many different faiths and belief systems. Kurzweil’s mother was an artist, his father a musician and composer, and his uncle (a very close friend) worked as an engineer at Bell Labs, often teaching young Ray Kurzweil about computers years before most people would be exposed to computing. In fact, Kurzweil wrote his first computer program in 1963 at the age of fifteen. If you’re keeping score, that’s six years before humans landed on the moon.
One of Kurzweil’s first big breakthroughs in programming came at an equally young age. At just 17 year sold, Kurzweil won the International Science Fair, and was congratulated by President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. Kurzweil wrote a program that composed music, an early foray into the kind of work he would do as an adult.
Among Kurzweil’s major inventions are the Select College Consulting Program designed to match high school students with the right college, the Kurzweil Reading Machine (which allows blind people to have text read to them), and Kurzweil electronic keyboards — the first high quality user friendly synthesizer / keyboards.
But Ray Kurzweil didn’t stop with inventions. His writing career rivals his career as an inventor, at least in 2009. His six published books cover a variety of topics from the history of computers to diet and nutrition advice. Often, reading Kurzweil’s “Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever” seems like a dip into speculative fiction more than a lecture on health. It combines his ideas about the future (for instance, the notion that medical science is only 20 years or so from slowing down or stopping the aging process) with otherwise sound health advice such as limiting sugar intake. His book “The Singularity is Near” is similar, combining hard science fiction themes with sincere advice to his readers. In fact, “The Singularity is Near” lays out a timeline for the advancement of technology toward a time when the “singularity” exists — the moment at which artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence. Yeah, this is heavy stuff, but it is fascinating reading, and some of Kurzweil’s past “predictions” have turned out stunningly accurate. For example, in his book The Age of Intelligent Machines, Kurzweil predicted the impact of cellular, digital, and other technologies on governments and revolutions. The recent conflict in Iran, digitally broadcast and endlessly Tweeted, is proof of his concept.
Ray Kurzweil holds honorary degrees from sixteen universities, among them Hofstra, DePaul, Michigan State, Queens College, and the Berklee College of Music. Currently, he’s attempting to bring what he calls “humanity’s great challenges”, working with NASA to gather brilliant minds to discuss the possibilities of the Singularity and other future events. He sits on the Army Science Advisory Board and is a vocal proponent of nanotechnology and microtechnologies. His newest book (Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever) is another tome on healthy living and hard science, and a followup to his classic Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever is available at bookstores now. He can also be seen working with Google CEOs attempting to promote the use of wind power to end our energy crisis.
Wherever he goes, whatever he says, Ray Kurzweil leaves an impression. For more information on Kurzweil’s ideas and his work, check out KurzweilAI.net, where the works of writers who follow Kurzweil’s theories (and other related themes) is gathered, from fiction to essays, or singularity.com for a site specifically related to the theory of the singularity.