EVERYTHING UNDER THE SON: Kurzweil dreams up many of his seemingly fantastical inventions at his office in Wellesley Hills. Here, he stands in front of a portrait of his father, Fredric, whom Kurzweil hopes to someday reanimate.
No disrespect to the man who let there be electric light, but Ray Kurzweil is Thomas Alva Edison on steroids.
That might not be evident on a visitor’s first trip to his Kurzweil Technologies, a sleek yet modest office in Wellesley Hills, which is rather ordinary looking for the headquarters of a futurist who’s striving to live forever.Still, the 62-year-old inventor is aware of the Edison comparisons, and flirts with them himself. In the second-floor lobby of this building overlooking I-95 South is an early 20th century Ediphone — essentially the world’s first tape recorder (as well as a hulking piece of office furniture).
“Edison’s a model of the way I like to work,” says Kurzweil, a lean and tan tech kingpin, who, in his spare time, collaborates with Google co-founder Larry Page on finding feasible ways to convert the whole planet to solar power. “He’s the best example of a saying I like to repeat: ‘Failure is just success deferred.’ Edison didn’t give up [on the light bulb] after a thousand filaments didn’t work, or after a thousand failures. He learned that persistence pays off. People actually declare their own failures — they give up at some point. But if you have the right goal — if you persist with it, and the goal is worth pursuing — then generally you can succeed.”
If that sounds like the sort of self-help psychiatry that one might expect from Kurzweil’s close friend Tony Robbins, just consider a few more examples of this contemporary Wizard of Menlo Park’s persistence. He developed the first flatbed scanner, the first optical character-recognition software, and a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind — and those were all before 1980. In 1984, at the urging of his buddy Stevie Wonder, Kurzweil built the first keyboard capable of mimicking orchestral instruments. On the Artificial Intelligence (AI) front, the futurist’s animated avatar Ramona inspired the Al Pacino cyborg-romance film S1mone (which was poorly received but controversial, in that the producers originally intended to use a computer-generated character to portray the title protagonist, which rankled the Screen Actors Guild). In the film world, he also pioneered motion-capture techniques that were recently used to animate James Cameron’s Avatar.
Even on the way over to his office, I found myself in his debt: I dictated his address to Google Maps on my six-ounce cell phone, which — using speech-recognition tech that Kurzweil developed more than 15 years ago — guided me directly to the inventor’s doorstep.
The MIT graduate (he earned his BS in computer science and literature in 1970) has made many millions of dollars from his inventions and has become a hero to the demographic that prays to Bill Gates (and to Gates himself, who calls Kurzweil “the best person I know at predicting artificial intelligence”). Until now, though, he has been a household name only in homes that subscribe to Wired. But that should change this year, as his new software company, Blio, crashes the e-book marketplace, and as two films are released: one a documentary about Kurzweil, the other a feature film that he produced about a fictional future in which humans and computers struggle to live in harmony.