on air | Make It • How musician Stevie Wonder + inventor Ray Kurzweil made history

feature: with Ray Kurzweil
December 1, 2019


video | making music history
The partnership of Stevie Wonder + Ray Kurzweil.

In 1982 computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil met with music legend Stevie Wonder. Together, Kurzweil and Wonder had an idea that would change music forever.

description: by cNBC

broadcast: cNBC
section: Make It
column: leadership

story title: Why Stevie Wonder had to meet this inventor
deck: By 2030 man will equal machine, AI legend.
author: by Robert Ferris
date: April 21, 2016

note: This story is collected for the Kurzweil library.

Why Stevie Wonder had to meet this inventor: by 2030 man will equal machine, AI legend
by Robert Ferris

— part 1 —

In 1976 Stevie Wonder saw a segment on the NBC Today show featuring a blind man like himself demonstrating a machine that Wonder knew he immediately needed to have. The machine was able to read text on a page and speak the words out loud, and it had been made to work specifically for blind people.

The device was the Kurzweil Reading Machine, named for its inventor Ray Kurzweil. So the blind singer contacted Kurzweil’s company. After a quick demo he became the company’s first official customer. So began a long friendship between the inventor and the musician. The 2 would eventually collaborate to produce a ground-breaking musical instrument that uses artificial intelligence to create sounds.

Some form of artificial intelligence has been at the foundation of all Kurzweil’s inventions. He has spent his career building tech that can learn + think in the ways humans do.

One of the unique human capabilities is the ability to recognize patterns — this is still something humans do better than machines, and it is crucial to many of the tasks only humans can do. Building machines that learn patterns can, in Kurzweil’s mind, create inventions that augment human intelligence and help us overcome the challenges such as disabilities. This conviction led him to invent the reading machine that would later captivate Wonder.

Science and technology luminaries such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking PhD have publicly warned of the challenges and threats humanity faces from artificial intelligence. But Kurzweil says artificial intelligence in some form or another is already all around us, and it has made us wealthier and more productive.

Ray Kurzweil said:

“What is exciting for an inventor is not just an abstract theory, but that leap from formulas on a blackboard to actually changing people’s lives. AI — artificial intelligence — machines doing tasks that used to require human intelligence, is deeply integrated into our infrastructure. Intelligent algorithms fly and land airplanes, guide weapons systems, make billions of dollars of financial decisions.

Machines will achieve the full range of human intelligence by 2030, but it won’t be an alien invasion of intelligent machines that compete with us. I mean it really is amplifying our own civilization. And we’re going to literally enhance our own intellectual capabilities by merging with this technology.”

His own work in the field grew out of a desire to use machine learning to solve real world problems. The Kurzweil Reading Machine — announced to the public in January 1976 — had that ability. After the first prototype was developed in 1975, Kurzweil approached the National Federation for the Blind about the possibility of working together.

Ray Kurzweil said:

“The National Federation of the Blind provided 7 blind engineers who collaborated with me to create a product that was optimal for use by blind users.” The machine made use of technologies that were new, many he developed himself. For example: computers had previously been quite bad at reading text. Software at the time he was building the Kurzweil Reading Machine could only read text in certain types of fonts — not nearly as many as appear in books.”

image | below
Poster portrait of music legend Stevie Wonder.

— part 2 —

When the product was unveiled it created a media stir — journalist Walter Cronkite used the machine to read his signature sign-off at the end of one of his new broadcasts. It also turned Kurzweil and musician Stevie Wonder into friends and collaborators. In 1982 Stevie Wonder was giving Kurzweil a tour of his new studio called Wonderland, and together they hatched the plan for Kurzweil’s next invention.

While showing Kurzweil around, Wonder complained there were 2 worlds of musical instruments:

First — 19th century acoustic instruments like the piano, guitar, violin were still the instruments of choice but are difficult to play. He also said one musician could not play several instruments at once.

Second — there was the world of computerized instruments that record what you play so the musician can edit a multi-instrumental piece the way a user could edit a document on a word processor. But computerized instruments could not replicate the beautiful sounds of acoustic instruments.

Stevie Wonder challenged Ray Kurzweil to combine the 2 worlds of musical instruments: create a computerized instrument with the desired deep sounds of acoustic instruments, with the powerful controls of computerized instruments. Kurzweil again thought pattern recognition and machine learning could help.

Stevie Wonder and Ray Kurzweil formed a company called Kurzweil Music Systems — one of the companies Kurzweil founded for his inventions. Wonder was the musical advisor, he had extensive input on the project. In 1984 the company released the Kurzweil 250 music synthesizer — considered the first computerized instrument that could realistically mimic sound of a grand piano and other orchestral instruments.

The Kurzweil 250 music synthesizer doesn’t play back recordings of instruments. When the original Kurzweil 250 was released, recording all of the 22,000 sounds a piano can make would have required about 10,000 different computer chips. Instead the synthesizer uses a computer model to create piano sounds, violin sounds, human voices — and any other sound a musician wants to make.

He sold Kurzweil Music Systems to a Korean company called Young Chang in 1990. Projects with the National Federation for the Blind continued. The original reading machine was so big it took up the back seat of a car — has shrunk to the size of a mobile app on a smart-phone. Blind users can read almost any print they encounter outside. A user takes a picture of a sign and the app will read it. Since users are blind or low vision, the mobile phone app will tell them to “take a step back” or “move the camera to the right” to get the best picture.

Kurzweil now works as a director of engineering at Google — he heads a team trying to teach to computers to read and respond to human language.

music | then + now
With synthesizers musicians craft an endless variety of sounds.

album: Talking Book
song: “Superstition”
musician: by Stevie Wonder
year: 1972

listen: “Superstition” — original version
listen: “Superstition” — modern re-mix no. 1
listen: “Superstition” — modern re-mix no. 2
listen: “Superstition” — modern re-mix no. 3
listen: “Superstition” — modern re-mix no. 4
listen: “Superstition” — modern re-mix no. 5

Wikipedia | song “Superstition”

on the web | background

Wikipedia | Stevie Wonder
Wikipedia | Ray Kurzweil

Wikipedia | music synthesizer
Wikipedia | reading machine

Wikipedia | Kurzweil Music Systems co.
Wikipedia | Kurzweil Computer Products co.
Wikipedia | the National Federation of the Blind

on the web | pages

Stevie Wonder | home

the National Federation of the Blind | home
Kurzweil Music Systems  | home

on the web | pages

cNBC | home
cNBC | YouTube channel

cNBC: Make It | home
cNBC: Make It | YouTube channel

— notes —

cNBC = cable National Broadcasting Company
* Stevie Wonder is Stevland Hardaway Morris

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about: How Stevie Wonder and Ray Kurzweil changed music. In 1982 computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil met with music legend Stevie Wonder. Together, Kurzweil and Wonder had an idea that would change music forever.

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