Webguru Dave Stein and I recently set out on an adventure in conversation with Ray Kurzweil. As the genius behind the Kurzweil Reading Machine, cybernetic poetry and other technological inventions of futuristic proportions, Ray spun some pretty fascinating tales about celebrity, nanobots, to-do lists and slapping the snooze bar to maximize creative potential. Here's what we learned from this Nerdly inventor-to-the-stars.
NW: How did your NerdLife evolve?
RK: By the age of five I was convinced I would be a scientist/inventor. I always knew what I was going to be. I got involved in projects [that] grabbed my imagination and that usually winded up being a lot more complicated than originally anticipated. At the age of seven or eight, I built a puppet theater that had mechanical systems that changed the scenery. I got involved with computers at about the age of twelve. I built some computer like devices with electrical parts I would buy down on Canal Street in New York. You could buy these telephone relays that were primary electrical devices I could use to implement logical circuits.
NW: So you built a whole computer?
RK: I built this computer-like device when I was twelve for a junior high school science fair. I also started programming in Fortran. So when I was about 14 and 15 I built another computer - my first pattern recognition project. I programmed it to analyze melodies of a particular composer and then compose original melodies in that style using pattern recognition principles. That was my Westinghouse Science Talent Search Project (winners went to Washington and met President Johnson) After that [it went] to the International Science Fair where it got first prize.
NW: At the age of fourteen, in the sixties, how'd you get access to computers to do Fortran programming?
RK: I had a job working for a research institute affiliated with one of the universities… I think it was New York University in New York. It was a summer job for a couple of summers. I started out doing these four way analyses of variants on these old electromechanical calculators that actually had these calculating algorithms built mechanically. Someone could actually do square roots … put the number in and it would actually grind away very noisily for like three or four minutes. But I quickly got tired of it…. Four way anaylsis variants involve all these repetitive calculations. We filled data in by hand in these various tables and followed this elaborate algorithm using a calculator and using pen and paper spreadsheets. So they actually had access to an IBM 1620 - forerunner of many computers - which wasn't a large mainframe. I could use it particularly in the evenings I had sort of free access to sit on it and write up the program in punchcards and key in the Fortran and [the computer] would compile it. Then I actually programmed it for four-way analysis of variants with unequal subset cell frequencies. IBM ended up distributing it to the 1620 and it was used for a while by similar research institutes.
NW: Was there anyone along the way who helped inspire your Nerdliness?
RK: Well, there was Marvin Minsky, with whom I corresponded when I was in high school. He invited me to come up here and visit him at MIT when I was in high school. He was and remains a very generous teacher in terms of his time. I think the thing he enjoys most is spending time with students. He spent a lot of time and was really interested in things I was doing. He wasn't even at that time a legendary professor in AI [and it] was not a very well known field. It wasn't a field I was interested in (this was the early sixties). I also visited Professor Rosenblatt at Cornell who was doing work with perceptrons, an early form of neural net. This was research that ultimately was negatively affected by the publication of Minsky and [Seymour] Papert's book Perceptrons in 1969… Minsky had done early work in connectionism and connectionist architectures. He was, in the early 60's, part of what then was traditional AI school of thought. Both of those professors turned me on in that they showed an interest in what I was doing and really seemed not to care that I was just a high school student.
NW: At any point did you consider getting into the music field?
RK: I was in a musical family and there was a strong musical influence, but I never considered being a musician. I did consider being a writer and in fact had a dual major in computer science and creative writing (at MIT). Lillian Hellman was a professor there and I studied with her. When I went to MIT in 1965 they only had eight or nine computer science courses, which I took for the first year or year and a half. So then I started majoring in literature. My parents were unhappy about that - my parents were both struggling artists. Even at that time science seemed to be the wave of the future and considering a more artistic career was upsetting to them. But I kept up an interest in both. Through writing nonfiction I was able to invent with material and technological resources that don't exist today; they exist in the future.
NW: I understand that you have an ongoing collaboration with Stevie Wonder?
RK: Yes, well I've known him for twenty-five years.
Read on to learn about the relationships that Ray shares with certain musicians and other celebrities that he has worked with.