Though he is digging up its roots, Kurzweil is paying homage to his impressive family tree: his grandmother was one of the first women in Europe to earn a PhD in chemistry; his mother was a visual artist who nurtured his ingenuity; his uncle, an engineer at Bell Labs, introduced him to computers. Both of Kurzweil’s parents, who were secular Jews, escaped from Austria before the onset of World War II, and found not just physical but creative freedom for themselves, and eventually their son, in the United States. At eight years old, Kurzweil debuted his “mechanical puppet theater”; by his teens, he was clandestinely scribbling computer code in class while, he says, “other kids [were reading] Playboy magazines behind their textbooks.”
In 1965, at the age of 17, Kurzweil became the most famous young inventor in America. That year, he appeared on the CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret, stunning host Steve Allen and the panel with a magical music machine that remixed recognizable classical pieces into original compositions. That achievement also won the prodigy a blue ribbon at the International Science Fair, and a trip to meet then-president Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House.
By the time he arrived at MIT the following year, Kurzweil was heavily invested in pattern recognition — still his “main technical interest” — which he describes as the function of operational intelligence that identifies sequences. On the premise that patterns are the best predictors, in his sophomore year Kurzweil hatched his first commercially viable development: a program that paired high-school seniors with appropriate colleges. When he grew tired of contracting the lone computer in New England for $1000-an-hour to process inquiries, Kurzweil sold his patent to a New York company for $100,000. From that moment on, he was no longer an ordinary inventor; Kurzweil was an entrepreneur and soon-to-be multi-millionaire, but one whose great white whale — immortality — dwarfs even Moby Dick.
THE FUTURE ON FILM: A still from the biographical Transcendent Man, touches on Kurzweil’s quest for immortality.
In the land of the blind, the man with Optical Character Recognition software is king. But if not for his randomly meeting someone with extremely poor vision on a plane in the early 1970s, Kurzweil might not have realized that his print-to-speech applications could potentially help special-needs readers. Once that individual explained that he relied on assistants to dictate personal memos — and hence lost privacy in correspondence — Kurzweil’s sight-impaired neighbor-in-the-sky inspired him to tool such educational devices as the Kurzweil 1000 (for the blind) and the Kurzweil 3000 (for persons with reading disabilities). He’s since received dozens of related accolades, including the Louis Braille Award and the American Foundation for the Blind’s Access Prize, as well as entry into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Through his work with the blind, Kurzweil forged a relationship with Stevie Wonder that led to the development of organic-sounding keyboards that bridged symphonic and digital ideals, and dramatically shifted the sonic landscape. “I was at [the musician’s studio] Wonderland in 1982,” recalls Kurzweil, “and he was lamenting the barrier between the 19th-century world of acoustic instruments . . . and the computer world, in which you could play any and every sound available.” Thirty years later, Kurzweil Music Systems, owned by Hyundai since 1990, remains one of the world’s leading producers of such synthesizers.