When Raymond Kurzweil was growing up in Queens, N.Y., his best friend was a computer. Now 27 and still wild about electronic brains, he has developed what may be the greatest boon to the blind since the invention of braille. It is a device that scans a page and then reads the contents aloud at nearly 200 clearly enunciated words per minute. The voice is a nasal monotone, and the accent has been likened to that of a middle-aged Swede speaking English. It is 10 times faster than any comparable invention.
According to Kurzweil, who heads a Cambridge, Mass. computer firm, an electronic camera sends an image of the printed page to a tiny computer. “The computer locates the letters and analyzes each for its geometric properties—loops, concavities, line segments,” he explains. Once the computer recognizes the letters, it uses some 1,000 phonetic rules programmed into its memory bank to turn the letters into sounds. Finally electronic circuits produce speech.
If that sounds complicated, it is—to most people. But not to Kurzweil. At 13 he designed an award-winning electronic memory system capable of storing 4,000 facts. A New York think tank was so impressed with Kurzweil that it hired him to analyze data. Three years later Kurzweil taught a computer to direct an electronic mouse through a maze and copy and compose classical music. This invention would have intrigued his late father, Fredric, a pianist-conductor who taught Ray to play piano at the age of 6.
At MIT, Kurzweil devised a computerized service to match high school students with appropriate colleges and sold it to a publisher for $100,000. By the time he earned his degree in computer science and literature in 1970, Kurzweil was developing computers to run factories. His versatility may help explain his great admiration for Thomas Edison. “He was a remarkable man. He did so many different things at the same time.”
Away from his computers, Kurzweil plays classical piano and writes poetry. He lives in suburban Chestnut Hill with his wife, Sonya, 29, a psychologist specializing in reading disabilities at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her patients may someday benefit from his new invention. It will be tested for a year, then sold to institutions for no more than $25,000. Mass production may lower the cost to $5,000.
In spite of his reliance on computers, Kurzweil never forgets who is boss. “Computers have no imagination,” he says. “You must tell them every last detail. They’re exasperating!”