feature storyfrom | Scientific AmericanWhere are they now?

with Ray Kurzweil
February 1, 2020

— contents —

~ about the collection
~ feature story

publication: Scientific American
collection: Where are they now? | visit

story title: Raymond Kurzweil: that magical transcendent feeling
deck: More than 40 years after being named a Westinghouse finalist, a futurist is still inventing.
author: by Laura Vanderkam
date: August 2008

read | story

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about | the collection

This collection is called: Where are they now? It looks at the lives of former finalists from the Westinghouse Science Talent Search — an historically important science fair that draws-in high school students around the country to present their scientific + technical research projects to academic leaders.

Traditionally, being a finalist is considered a distinguished honor. This story collection by Scientific American catches-up with the current activities of adults who participated in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search as teens.

— in brief —

name: Ray Kurzweil
bio: A best-selling author, pioneering inventor, and futurist.

year: 1965
placed: finalist
science fair: Westinghouse Science Talent Search
his project: Program a computer to compose music in the style of a classical composer.

visit | Ray Kurzweil’s teen science project

Where are they now?

What led to the science project.

By age 5 Ray Kurzweil knew he wanted to be an inventor. Building things in his New York city home out of spare parts and Erector sets gave him what he describes as a “magical, transcendent feeling” — that soon had him hooked.

He discovered computers around age 12. He spent hours tinkering with them: hanging around the electronics surplus stores on Manhattan’s Canal Street in New York city to nab the components. His father Fredrick Kurzweil was a musician. As a high school student, Kurzweil came up with the idea of programming a computer to recognize patterns in music written by composers such as Mozart and Chopin. He tried to program the computer to compose music in a similar style.

Because this was long before the days of everyday laptops, he actually built a computer in order to program it. The new musical works ‘didn’t have the genius of those composers’ he said. But could be mistaken for a student of Chopin’s. Kurzweil entered the project in the 1965 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist.

Effect on his career.

Becoming a Westinghouse finalist cemented Kurzweil’s interest in pattern recognition.  He said: “The secret to human intelligence is our ability to recognize patterns. It’s the only thing human beings can do that machines can’t do as well — yet.”

Kurzweil has spent the past 50 years trying to change that. His next major project after Westinghouse, started during his freshman year at MIT: a software program that helps students choose the right college. It was based on patterns in answers given by other students — and characteristics of the colleges. He ran the analysis on himself and determined that he should be at MIT. He founded a company to market the questionnaire and eventually sold it to publisher Harcourt, Brace + World.

After college he began a project in optical character recognition — teaching a machine to read any kind of text. At that time such devices could only read a few fonts. He wasn’t quite sure what the market would be — until he happened to sit next to a blind man on an airplane trip. The man explained his primary problem: access to ordinary print. Few documents came over the transom in braille.

So he built and unveiled the Kurzweil Reading Machine in year 1976: for blind, low-vision, and dyslexic people. It was innovative but — with computing power limits of the 1970s — the machine covered a whole desktop, which limited its use.

Interest in futurism.

Ray Kurzweil’s work in technology led to his interest in futurism. His opinions are controversial. For example, in 2006 he predicted that nano-technology — in 15 to 30 years — could help repair the human body, so people might live forever. Kurzweil takes a daily cocktail of nutritional supplements.

In a Philadelphia Inquirer opinion story, he wrote that eternal life is in reach. He said: “Being able to de-code the human genome helps us make models of major diseases. This gives us tools to re-program those processes away from disease.”

He said: “Scientists could turn on -and- off enzymes, the work-horses of biology. For example: the Pfizer cholesterol lowering drug torcetrapib turns off one enzyme that allows atherosclerosis to progress.”

These sweeping statements were too much for In the Pipeline blogger Derek Lowe: a 20 year veteran of pharma industry. Lowe said: “Ray Kurzweil really seemed to be living in 1997 when he wrote that. There’s a lot more to figuring out how diseases progress than knowing the human genome. There are a huge number of diseases with no genetic correlation at all — or some like schizophrenia with a list of genes as long as your leg that are sort of associated with schizophrenia, sometimes in some populations.”

Kurzweil’s optimism was also a bit much for the data. The drug torcetrapib failed in one of the most expensive debacles in pharmaceutical history. Derek Lowe said: “300 years from now — people may look at this guy and think he was a prophet. But there’s going to be a tremendous amount of time + money spent for these prophecies to come true. I don’t disagree with him. But I think his time-line is off.”

What he’s doing now.

But technology changes can be swift. For example: Ray Kurzweil’s new mobile reading machine — co-developed with the National Federation of the Blind — fits into a mobile phone. People who are blind, low-vision, or dyslexic can simply take a picture of the text in their environment with the mobile phone, and the phone reads it to them.

Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “It reads magazines on airplanes, restaurant menus, coffee pouches in hotel rooms, currency anywhere, the signs on hotel walls, and sometimes the bottles or cans in the cupboard or the boxes in the freezer. It can identify the bills, read the mail, disclose the contents of books, and sometimes read the visual displays on automatic teller machines or other devices. It works for you all day + all night, and it’s polite.”

In addition to running his many projects: Kurzweil also created a investment fund called FATKAT. He’s writing a book on how a machine can imitate the human mind. The documentary film Transcendent Man is about his theories + predictions. Kurzweil says he still gets the same magical sensation he felt at 5 years old when he sees people using his inventions. He said: “You can change people’s lives with technology. That’s the goal of being an inventor.”

— the end —

— notes —

MIT = Massachusetts Institute of Technology
NFB = National Federation of the Blind

FATKAT = Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies